Small scale, big change: Community Energy Conference plans the renewables revolution

The conference looked at ways of working with communities to drive the move away from fossil fuels

With the climate crisis growing in urgency, and the pandemic highlighting the important role of community, this is an important time for the energy co-op movement.

New technologies, changing regulations and national targets for net zero carbon emissions all have major implications for the sector, and loomed large at the UK’s recent Community Energy Conference.

Whether it is finding ways to eliminate heat waste, organise energy storage or generate clean energy, local action is crucial to delivering the carbon savings, the event, organised by Community Energy England, was told.

Damien Kelly, innovation lead at non-government agency Innovate UK, highlighted three schemes for “town-scale power heat and mobility services”, which are testing business models and smart energy systems. Reflex, in the north-east of England, Local Energy Oxfordshire (Leo) and Oxford Energy Superhub.

One of the key lessons so far – that the “energy transition needs to happen with communities, not to them” makes the community energy model an attractive one, he said. 

Related: Community energy sector hit hard by loss of government support

The second lesson is that “collaboration is vital to delivering a just transition to net zero” – with input needed from organisations such as tech companies, energy networks and local authorities. Thirdly, he said, evidence is critical when it comes to influencing policymakers.

Barbara Hammond, from the Low Carbon Hub, one of the organisations involved in Leo, said battery storage, which offers more flexibility in energy use, was one of the key avenues being explored. More insight is needed into how substations handle peaks and troughs of demand with established patterns of day and night time usage starting to change, she warned, especially with the increased demand for EV charging. If District Network Operators respond to this challenge by prioritising large energy suppliers, it would make it hard for smaller players like energy co-ops to find a place in the system. 

To counter this, the community energy sector must use its assets and capital to be at the cutting edge of innovation, and follow long term business models to meet its social purpose. “Growing our portfolio of assets isn’t just about size,” she said, “it’s about how much knowledge we gain and how much community benefit we bring, to leverage for grant support.” 

She also highlighted inequalities that must be addressed, such as finding a way for rental tenants to benefit from the energy transition when they don’t have the assets or freedom to install technology that home owners enjoy.

When the UK switched to natural gas for its energy, 20% of the population was left off the grid; this must not happen with the low carbon transition, warned Ms Hammond. “It needs to include everyone – people in fuel poverty should not lose out yet again.”

Similarly, there are trust issues, with many people reluctant to use smart meters. 

“We need to get people understanding what we’re trying to do,” she said. “We need clear language. A lot of people don’t know what the smart meter is trying to do for them and others.”

This means the sector isn’t getting the “granular data” it needs. This hampers processes such as integrating rooftop solar into the system; to get around this, the Low Carbon Hub is introducing “a widget that allows people to choose how much data they share”. 

But Matthew Clayton, managing director at Thrive Renewables, which works to find investors in sustainable energy, was optimistic about the take-up of such technologies. “History tells us if something’s good for your pocket people will go for it. If energy bills come down people will accept it.”

Another energy solution is the development of heat networks – the distribution of heat through a group of properties from a shared source. They are at the core of Islington Council’s vision for a low carbon transition. Rodrigo Matabuena, energy projects manager at the north London borough, talked the conference through a number of initiatives developed by the council, including Greenscies, a project which captures waste heat from the Tube and distributes it to 600 council homes, 100 private homes, a school and two leisure centres.

Community engagement and co-design are vital if such projects are to work effectively, said Dr Afsheen Rashid, from Repowering London – which runs community benefit societies to help people develop their own renewable and energy efficiency schemes.

Key concerns identified by her organisation through consultation are community, cleanliness and cost. Repowering London is building on this insight with a community engagement plan for 2021, recruiting a “critical friends group” to get more feedback.

The plan includes community engagement on electric vehicles, assessing local appetite for investment and share opportunities, and the development of print and digital material to raise awareness of the Greenscies project.

Another project discussed at the conference was Zero Carbon Rugeley, in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, which is guiding efforts by utilities multinational Engie to develop a zero-carbon local energy system from the town out of its old coal power station, which was decommissioned in 2016. Partners include Chase Community Solar, the West Midlands Combined Authority, Keele University, the New Vic Theatre and Regen.

The project requires local data to provide an understanding of energy needs in the town, and it is using community ambassadors builds trust. Grace Bebington, from Chase Community Solar, said her organisation is valuable here because it already enjoys local trust. 

But if community energy groups are trusted, they face other challenges, she warmed: they are small and often volunteer-led and can struggle to recruit board members. And  with no urban equivalent to the rural community energy fund it is hard for them to deliver at the scale required by the zero carbon transition.

Plymouth Community Energy, which is developing heat pump and solar systems, has a number of collaborations in progress – with organisations in Brittany as well as the local authority. Its co-op advisor Jon Selman said this will help it tackle the challenge of decarbonising heat, which is harder than decarbonising electricity because it involves a range of different buildings, presenting different challenges when it comes to retrofitting with heat pumps and insulation.

With buildings making up 31% of UK emissions, heat needs to be decarbonised if the country is to reach net zero by 2050. A national strategy on heat is due from the government this month; Mr Selman said national decarbonisation would need the installation of 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028 –up from 30,000 a year, along with more energy-efficient homes.

“We’re looking at ways to decarbonise without detracting affordability,” he added. “Urban areas are challenging. The tech is out there but we’re talking large buildings. The best solution is thermally efficient buildings with a low energy heat pump, but that is expensive.”

Plymouth City Council has declared a climate emergency and its low carbon officer Dan Turner said the community energy model could help simplify the challenges of heat by offering good performance and quality design. 

The rising cost of carbon might help business case, he added, and there is a need to build case studies with range of stakeholders.

Council partnerships are useful when it comes to planning and finance, he added. 

“Most councils have a climate plan but most have no idea how to achieve it. Just be direct. Tell them, we have a solution, here it is.”

In this article

Join the Conversation