Community energy experts have warned about challenges facing the sector and urged stronger lobbying to ensure better government support.
“With the draconian cuts to feed-in tariffs, broken promises around tax reliefs and co-ops being excluded from a new innovative ISA, community energy is not in a great place right now,” said Paul Monaghan, sustainability adviser at Co-operative energy.
Mr Monaghan, who was introducing a session on lobbying for the sector at the 2016 Community Energy Conference, added that a forthcoming keynote address by Theresa May was to be on energy.
“This probably doesn’t bode well – but it means we are front and centre again … and we are in a good place with the general public and with the voters,” he said.
Recent research from Co-operative Energy shows that Conservative supporters support a renewable energy surcharge more than general public.
Kathy Smyth, lead for policy at Community Energy England, told the session more than £27m of equity had been raised for community energy projects in England in 12 months. But with 2015-16 dominated by a drop in FITs and the removal of the EIS/SEIS tax relief, she warned: “I think we’ve pushed as far as we can – to me the Treasury door looks closed to tax relief.”
Ms Smyth highlighted research from Co-operatives UK which showed an 80% drop-off in community energy activity this year. Just ten new community energy organisations were registered between 1 January and 6 September this year, compared with 76 in 2015.
“In this context, we need quick and easy policy asks,” she said. “What can we do? What would help, but that we could realistically take to the legislature?”
For district heating, pre-accreditation is needed for community energy schemes at all scales,” she said. Another suggestion from CEE centred around the re-introduction of pre-referral for sub 50kw rooftop community energy schemes, which wouldn’t cost the government any money and doesn’t require any primary legislation.
“There is no money in the pot – our asks have to reflect that,” said Mr Monaghan.
In Wales, there are other issues to consider. Rob Proctor, business manager at Community Energy Wales, told the session that over £5 million has been raised in Welsh share offers over past three years.
The country has 90 groups actively developing community energy projects, he added, but these were slow to get off the ground, with problems around planning, grid connections, licensing and resources.
“We do have an environment bill, an expert environment and sustainability committee, support programmes,” said Mr Proctor. “The Welsh government has good community energy policies, but it has been accused of being all flagships, no ships.”
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Ahead of last May’s Welsh Assembly elections, Community Energy Wales called for targets for community energy, a right of local supply and the easing of the planning process for community renewables.
Mr Proctor said one problem is that a lot of powers around energy regulation and taxation are not devolved – and although the Welsh government is supportive, the issue is not a vote-winner.
“We need to engage people on this, and make it an electoral issue,” he added.
Delegates agreed there was a “need to make the pie for community energy bigger”, with calls for lobbying to get onshore wind back on the agenda, getting local and sustainable energy enshrined in policy, using a few key messages over and over again, and a renewed focus on education.
According to Greenpeace, hand-written letters and visits to MPs are most effective form of government lobbying, said one delegate, dismissing clicktivists.
“The challenge is that while people support community energy, they don’t vehemently support it to the lengths that the anti-renewable people oppose it,” said another.
A third delegate added: “Community energy groups aren’t good lobbyists – they are too busy doing other things,” and suggested the sector work with other groups, such as Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid and the RSPCA.
“We have an incredible opportunity, politically,” said Paul Monaghan. “Community energy needs to be a part of the dialogue.”