Powering forward – the need for new approaches

“We might as a country be leaving the institution of the European Union; we’re not leaving Europe. You will remain our friends.” So said Ramsay Dunning, general manager of...

“We might as a country be leaving the institution of the European Union; we’re not leaving Europe. You will remain our friends.” So said Ramsay Dunning, general manager of Co-operative Energy, opening the 2016 Community Energy Conference.

The event – now in its fourth year – marked the start of the 2016 Community Energy Fortnight (3-18 September). It brought together over 300 people at Oxford’s Said Business School, and the themes of politics, Brexit and learning from our European neighbours ran strong throughout the day.

“Robert Owen spent his adult life lobbying for political reform. We’re trying to continue that with Co-operative Energy 160 years later,” said Mr Dunning.

“Around 160 years ago there were energy co-operatives in the UK. At the time, that energy was coal – so co-ops moved into that. Now we’re having another go.”

Recently, lobbying for renewable energy has been “like rolling water uphill with a sieve,” he added, but said that despite barriers over the last year such as the removal of the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) subsidy and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) tax relief, there were “new opportunities to be seized”.

Mr Dunning highlighted recent research from Co-operative Energy which showed that 67% of UK adults support local community-owned renewable energy projects, while support among Conservative voters increased from 62% in 2015 to 65% in 2016.

CEC_16_041 Ramsay Dunning
Ramsay Dunning, Co-operative Energy general manager

“This is very, very powerful ammunition that we can use in seeking out that reform that we’re looking for,” he said. In the past the sector has grown from financial support for emerging energy technology (such as FITs), but has been held back by regulation.

“I can buy the clothes I’m wearing, food, and so on from whoever I like,” said Mr Dunning. “If I want to buy food from local producers, I can do so. Why can’t I do it with energy? Because the regulation doesn’t allow it. But why doesn’t it? That’s a question we need to be asking and pressing home.”

He added that door is open to remove those barriers, but the community energy sector needed to step through that door and put its asks out there.

“Big business has the advantages of expertise, time, people and cheap capital – but so do we. Not every group has it all, but all of these ingredients are present in this movement.

“Co-operating can make things happen, and Community Energy England is the umbrella that can co-ordinate all of this.”

Co-operative Energy was launched five years ago by Midcounties Co-operative to supply gas and electricity across England, Scotland and Wales, and was supporting the conference with Community Energy England (CEE). CEE was founded in 2014 by the sector to create a voice for community energy and support sector development, and now has 200 members.

“It’s been a year of uncertainty”, said Emma Bridge, chief executive at CEE, who spoke about the challenges of the last 12 months.

“This time last year we were adapting to a myriad of changes,” she said, “But there was a sense of solidarity and optimism. The sector had been challenged before … and with a husky-hugging prime minister, how could we fail?”

However less than two weeks after the 2015 Community Energy conference came the announcement of the sudden removal of pre-registration and temporary pre-accreditation, and the following month saw the removal of the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) and a u-turn on the decision to enlarge community energy tax relief for renewable energy.

“The pressure was on to start to register projects before the deadline, and a spurt of community share offers came out,” said Ms Bridge. “As this was taking place, the reduced FITs and deployment rates came out. Then came Brexit, and the uncertainty about the impact this will have.”

One immediate impact has been the ending of the department for energy and climate change and the creation of a new business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) department headed by Greg Clarke, who has been described by the Financial Times as an “economically liberal Conservative with a social conscience”. 

Ms Bridge believes this will bring more challenges, but more opportunities as well.

Emma Bridge, chief executive at Community Energy England
Emma Bridge, chief executive at Community Energy England

“Energy is now embedded with business and industry rather than as a separate stand-alone – and we do have some support within government for community energy,” she said.   

“With Brexit, many people chose to leave because they wanted to take back control and be included in the decisions that affect them. They were ready for grassroots change. Step up community energy. Community energy is about grassroots action and it is about taking back control.”

Read more: All our coverage of the 2016 Community Energy Fortnight will be updated at www.thenews.coop/CEF16

There is an estimated 150 MW of installed (or soon to be installed) community energy in the UK, which has received £90m of community investment, and the sector has seen an increased link between energy efficiency and generation, and increased innovation.

“But community energy is more than the MW generated and the energy saved – it’s the story behind the projects, the people involved and the people helped … community energy is fundamental to positive local change.”

CEE will be undertaking a state of the sector survey later this year with a view to publishing an annual report, said Ms Bridge, and the organisation will continue meeting with government and regulators, mobilising action, preparing policy briefings and responses and sharing knowledge around new business models and other innovation.

The organisation is also developing the Community Energy Hub and is launching a new manifesto early in 2017.

“Seeing and speaking to so many different community energy groups at the launch day of Community Energy Fortnight was incredibly inspiring,” said Ms Bridge after the event. “It has been a difficult couple of years for groups having to adapt to ever changing hurdles but there was a real sense of motivation and resilience in the air.

“Delegates were keen to build upon their achievements and identify new ways of working, without losing the ethos and value that community energy brings. The ideas shared at the conference will go towards helping the sector to adapt and grow.”

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