Last updated: July 2013
Do Energy Yourself
How communities across the country are generating their own power.
As an alternative to buying your electricity and gas from one of the big utility companies, you could get involved in community energy – small scale, consumer owned, locally generated renewables. These schemes help de-carbonise the power supply and offer genuine ‘energy security’.
From installing solar panels on individual homes to investing in community-owned hydro schemes and wind farms, communities throughout the UK are following the lead of Baywind in Cumbria, where two wind turbines were financed by a £1.2 million ‘community share’ offer in 1996/7. Recently Drumlin Wind Energy, the first community-owned wind project in Northern Ireland, launched a share offer which raised over £2.5 million. Local energy saving projects and community buying groups are also part of the mix.
Community energy projects
Community energy projects are funded through a mixture of investment and government Feed-in Tariffs. They are democratically accountable to those involved – often structured as co-operatives – and usually reinvest surplus profits back into the project and wider locality. They are also an excellent way to engage people in practical solutions to climate change. In Germany, individuals and community groups now provide more than half of all investment in renewables, but the proportion in the UK is tiny.
Complete energy autonomy is very difficult for communities unless they have their own microgrid. The benefits of microgrids were shown earlier this year when Co-op City – a large housing development in the Bronx, New York – was able to keep the lights on throughout the power cuts caused by Hurricane Sandy.
A number of Scottish Islands, such as Eigg, have complete community ownership of their grid of renewables, including solar, wind and hydro. The eco development, Lancaster Cohousing, was inspired by Eigg to create an energy ‘island’ on the mainland. This includes solar thermal, biomass-fueled district heating, hydro and solar PV, all feeding into a microgrid, combined with the highest standard of energy saving buildings. We are connected to the National Grid to export surplus energy.
Although most projects are rural, there are some inspirational urban projects. In Newport, Wales, Gen Community raised £450,000 to install solar PV on 100 fuel poor houses. Sheffield Renewables are installing hydro schemes at historic locations that have been used to power Sheffield in the past. Brixton Energy have installed 100 kWp of solar PV panels on the roofs of social housing blocks and have ambitions, as part of Repowering South London, to set up their own community-owned energy company to supply customers.
Completing a community wind or hydro project takes several years, demanding huge commitment from volunteers and resilience in the face of often fierce opposition. Most groups start with solar PV, which is much more straightforward and can be delivered in a few months.
Advice and support is available in Scotland from Community Energy Scotland and in Wales from Community Energy Wales but there is no equivalent in England or Northern Ireland. Details of resources available to community energy groups can be found at communityenergy.org.uk and The Rough Guide to Community Energy is full of practical advice and inspiring case studies.
Although the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, has called for a “Community Energy Revolution”, in practice statutory support for the sector is poor. The Government is developing a ‘community energy’ strategy which it says will improve matters but indicators are not great: under the Energy Bill going through parliament, community renewable companies will receive far lower incentives than the Big Six energy companies will get for their renewable schemes.
Pluses and pitfalls of community energy
- Cost efficient (relying on volunteers)
- Opportunity for communities to generate long term income, create jobs and save money
- Enables people to make a real contribution to decarbonisation of energy supply
- Builds community trust and connections
- Leads to behaviour change in those involved
- Reduces opposition to wind and hydro
- Lack of support available in England and NI
- Complex planning and licensing requirements hard to negotiate
- Difficult to get finance for initial stages
- Volunteer burnout
- Feed-in Tariff for solar PV is too low to make many PV schemes viable
Written by Kevin Frea who is a director of Halton Lune Hydro. He and his partner, Alison Cahn, live in Lancaster Cohousing.
Read Alison Cahn’s piece on the challenges Lancaster Cohousing has faced in setting up its hydropower scheme.