Is renewables investment making ownership more democratic?

Along with many, I celebrated the announcement last month that the applications for fracking in Lancashire had been rejected. The decision was made following significant protests and a...

Along with many, I celebrated the announcement last month that the applications for fracking in Lancashire had been rejected.

The decision was made following significant protests and a petition signed by 50,000 people. Daisy Sands, Greenpeace UK energy and climate campaigner, called it “a triumph for local democracy”.

But was it? The decision was made by 14 people on a council committee. The people of Lancashire have won this battle, but are no closer towards true democratic control over their own energy provision.

According to the government’s public attitudes tracker, just 25% of people support the extraction of shale gas. Most sit firmly on the fence. Compare that to the 78% of people who support renewable energy. Even onshore wind saw 65% of respondents in favour, with only 12% directly opposing it.

But renewables aren’t necessarily a democratic energy source. Most projects are owned by the ‘big six’, giving the public little say in where they are located, how they are run, or how profits are spent.

But with community-owned energy, we do see democracy in action. Those opposed to renewables often change their mind if the scheme is to be owned by the local community, and 78% believe renewables should provide direct benefit to the communities where they are sited.

Will Dawson from Forum for the Future, which convenes the Community Energy Coalition (CEC), said: “Community energy is the embodiment of democracy, from how decisions are made on which projects should happen, right through to ownership. It’s a stark difference from the alternative, where just a few corporations have control of the market, with passive consumers at the other end.”

Take Balcombe village in West Sussex, which set up a community co-op, REPOWERBalcombe, as a response to the threat of fracking. Its aim was to generate the equivalent of 100% of the village’s electricity needs from community-owned, locally generated renewables.

A portion of its profits goes to local energy-efficiency measures. Crucially, anyone in the local area can become a member by investing £250 or more, and members have a say in how the co-op is run, as well as receiving a financial return.

Support has been so strong that REPOWERBalcombe has now put in plans for a new 5MW solar farm, which would provide enough energy for an extra 1,000 homes.

Joe Nixon of REPOWERBalcombe told us: “The way our energy infrastructure is currently set up is wrong. We can change that.

“People want to know where their energy is coming from, they want a say in how it’s generated and they want to ensure that some of the profits go back into the community, not just to fat cat shareholders.”

Less than 1% of renewable energy is generated by projects owned by communities or individuals but, says Mr Dawson, community energy is gaining in popularity.

“People love the concept,” he said. “They want to take control of their energy and be a part of something. A lot more people are finding out about it and hearing how other communities are doing it.

“There are some truly inspirational stories out there. The government’s Community Energy Strategy published at the start of last year has given community energy an endorsement.”

Unfortunately, renewable energy projects will be seriously hampered by the government’s recent removal of onshore wind subsidies.

Even more devastating is the announcement from the department for communities and local government that all wind projects in England must now be put forward for areas ‘identified as suitable for wind energy development in a Local or Neighbourhood Plan’.

The new energy secretary, Amber Rudd, says this “will mean no more onshore wind farms without local community support”.

While at first glance this sounds like a positive step, few if any of these areas currently exist in England, so in practice it could mean no more community wind schemes for the foreseeable future.

Emma Bridge from Community Energy England warns: “100% of the community-owned schemes already in the planning system are seriously jeopardised by the changes to planning. Most at pre-application stage will have to be abandoned.”

Colin Baines, co-founder of the Community Energy Coalition and former manager of the Co-op Group’s Clean Energy Revolution campaign, said: “In addition to renewable and community energy being popular, it is also in the fortunate position of having very strong economic and environmental arguments.

“This makes the government’s singular attacks on renewable energy over recent weeks all the more astonishing.

“Sensible policy would be to ‘go all out’ for community energy rather than shale gas, and to take advantage of the demand from communities to democratically control and benefit from their own clean energy projects.”

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