Colin Baines: Energy Bill poses a threat to community schemes

The Energy Bill must be "urgently" amended to ensure community-owned energy schemes are not penalised, argues Colin Baines, Campaigns Manager at the Co-operative Group . . .

The Energy Bill must be "urgently" amended to ensure community-owned energy schemes are not penalised, argues Colin Baines, Campaigns Manager at the Co-operative Group . . .

Community-owned renewable energy has received remarkable levels of vocal support from ministers and shadow ministers alike as the Energy Bill has progressed through parliament.

However, it currently contains no supportive policy measures and, as it stands, represents a huge threat to this vibrant and rapidly growing sector.

Currently, the Energy Bill threatens to prevent larger community schemes over 5MW, such as the Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative in Oxfordshire and the Lochcarnan Community Wind Farm in Scotland, from ever happening again. The problem is that the Bill has been developed with large commercial generators in mind. Participating in the proposed "contracts for difference" system would require a high degree of technical knowledge, creating an excessive administrative burden for community projects largely dependent on passionate and dedicated volunteers. Also, with the end of the Renewables Obligation, electricity suppliers will have little incentive to purchase renewable energy from community generators, who have limited bargaining power.

To overcome these problems the Energy Bill urgently requires amendment. Together with 16 other co-operatives and civil society organisations, including the National Trust, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Transition Network, we are calling for community schemes to be exempted from the new "contracts for difference" regime by allowing projects up to 20MW in size to access the fixed Feed-in Tariff scheme instead. We also want a duty to be placed on the secretary of state to promote new community energy generation and for a Green Power Auction Market to be introduced, where communities would receive a fair rate for their electricity.

Critics of these amendments suggest that few community projects are of the scale that would be affected. This misses the point, as community energy is an emerging sector with huge potential for growth, with conservative estimates of 3.5GW of generation capacity achievable in the UK by 2020, the equivalent of nearly four conventional coal-fired power stations. Those larger community projects mentioned above are potentially the first of a great many, not exceptions to the rule.

Policymakers need to recognise that the benefits of community energy extend far beyond helping the country to meet its stated energy goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy security. It also keeps the profits generated within the community to be redistributed for its own benefit, improves energy awareness and influences personal behaviour, and perhaps most important of all, it increases public acceptance of vital renewable energy projects. Recent research commissioned by the Co-operative found that 22% of people would oppose a wind farm near their home. This opposition drops to just 7% if the project is owned by and benefits the community. When planning opposition is the main barrier to many larger renewable energy projects being realised, this cannot easily be ignored.

There is very strong political support for community energy with Liberal Democrat secretary of state, Ed Davey, stating "I want nothing less than a community energy revolution" and the Conservative minister, Greg Barker, stating it to be "vital to our vision of the development of energy in the UK".

DECC is also in the process of drafting a Community Energy Strategy, which is a very welcome step forwards. However, the Energy Bill remains a missed opportunity and grave threat with the only positive news being that Greg Barker has stated in parliament that raising the fixed Feed-in Tariff threshold is "under active consideration".

We must keep up the pressure to turn this vocal government support into solid policy measures. You can help by contacting your MP to ask that they support our recommended amendments to the Energy Bill. To date our community energy campaign has attracted support from across the political spectrum, with MPs from nine political parties signing Early Day Motion 684 (Community Energy), including influential figures from the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. These include the Lib Dem president Tim Farron, former Conservative energy minister Charles Hendry and chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee Tim Yeo.

With such a broad base of support and such enormous potential, community energy must be given the opportunity to thrive. We hope this opportunity will be taken when the Energy Bill reaches its report stage in the House of Commons in coming weeks.

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