Marie-Claire Kidd catches up with the movers and shakers in the community energy sector. What is the achievement they are most proud of? What’s the next challenge? And who – or what – inspires them?
Paul Monaghan, director of Up the Ethics, Co-operative Energy’s sustainability advisor (above)
An achievement: Against all odds, the sector continues to grow and is on the verge of starting to have real scale. Community energy accounted for three quarters of community share issues (by value) last year. There are now 450 projects operational or progressing.
The challenge: We have a government that’s hostile to renewable energy in a way that defies rationality, but we’ve maybe managed to keep the door ajar for community-owned renewable energy projects. The challenge is to mobilise and capitalise on this opening. We could be the last, best hope for onshore wind and solar farms.
My inspiration: Rocky Balboa: “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can be hit and keep moving forward, that’s how winnings done.”
Peter Capener MBE, co-founder and chair of Bath & West Community Energy
An achievement: A community energy model that’s financially sustainable and delivers returns to investors, clean energy and ownership and governance control, with surplus profits invested back into the local area.
The challenge: How to adapt that model so it still retains that financial viability and delivers all these benefits but through new mechanisms, for example energy supply, storage, demand management and local grid management.
My inspiration: Making a difference in a way that inspires other people around me to also get involved and create a collective sense of change
Jane Fitzpatrick, volunteer, Repower Balcombe
An achievement: We’re helping grow support for renewables. There were areas where our flyers were constantly taken down. There were divisions which I’m sure we are reducing because of our consultations.
The challenge: We’re set ourselves a very ambitious aim to source all power from renewables within a 10-mile radius of Balcolme. Finding suitable sites has been a problem. We almost secured a very big site but the owners pulled out because they thought they could do it themselves.
My inspiration: My family moved to the parish in the 1950s. I’m very much against the use of fossil fuels and I want to do something that will benefit future generations, however small.
Leo Murray, co-founder and director of strategy, 10:10
Achievement: Our biggest contribution has been to broaden the kind of people who participate in this, for example through Solar Schools. It’s about challenging preconceptions of who is an environmentalist and normalising action on climate change.
Challenge: To demonstrate to government that the British public want the renewable energy transition, to demonstrate that they’ve political capital to lose when they attack the green economy.
Inspiration: Winning small victories, and unexpected people being passionate enough to give up their time and energy. I love it when I suddenly find someone who’s active that I’m not expecting.
Philip Wolfe, chair, Westmill Solar Co-op and Community Energy England
Achievement: A project at serious scale, entirely through community involvement rather than the big corporates we all love to hate, often for very good reason. Westmill raised £18m in six weeks; £6m from members of the public and £12m in the form of a loan from a local authority pension fund. It produces enough electricity for 1,500 households.
Challenge: Community energy needs to professionalise. Just because we’re volunteers doesn’t mean we need to be amateurs. I want us to be very good at what we do. We need to do more than try and defend the subsidies the government is intent on removing. What does renewable community energy post subsidy mean and how do we get there fast?
Inspiration: This country as a whole has missed a trick in thinking that the whole energy system needs to be done through the corporate model that’s served us really badly over the last few decades. There’s a another way. We’re a viable partner in a viable sector.
Syed Ahmed, director of Energy for London and the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group
Achievement: There are a lot more community energy initiatives in London than we anticipated. Four or five groups are quite well known but we found more than 20. That was one the things that made us look to bring them together and make the voice of community energy in London a lot louder.
Challenge: Establishing relationships between councils and community organisations. Some local authority assets can be harnessed by the community. When councils don’t have finance in place, community groups can step forward. London has the lowest uptake of solar in the country, even though it’s in the south.
Inspiration: The time for decentralised energy is now. We have the technology. Sun, water and wind resources shouldn’t be in the hands of any one company. They’re community assets. We can use them for a whole host of things. They’re opportunities to catalyse other community benefits.
Ed Mayo, secretary general, Co-operatives UK
Achievement: As a sector, with Co-operatives UK playing a big role, we successfully made the case for continued tax support for community investment in renewables; opening up Social Investment Tax Relief for the sector and winning a better transition from the Enterprise Investment Scheme – no mean feat considering we were asked to contemplate a scenario without tax relief back in Summer 2014.
Challenge: Following contentious guidance in October 2014 from the regulator, FCA, we pulled together as a sector to critique, lobby and campaign, and we now see significant improvements in FCA policy in its most recent consultation; in particular no low and arbitrary caps on interest rates. But there’s still a way to go. The FCA needs to recognise that members’ common environmental needs and aspirations are met in energy co-ops and to take a fair, considered and transparent approach when dealing with established societies and during registration.
Inspiration: Our members. Baywind was the first renewable energy co-operative and now, through Energy4All, it is changing the world. As we know from our support for community share issues, inspiration isn’t in short supply. With a slot-machine policy framework, it’s perspiration, patience and teamwork that makes the difference.
Ramsay Dunning, general manager, Co-operative Energy
Achievement: The sheer number, range and variety of initiatives emerging or achieving success, and it’s right across the country. There’s resilience in that diversity.
Challenge: To professionalise, to share the expertise so groups don’t have to re-invent what others have already learnt and proven.
Inspiration: The internet; to move from citizen dependency of centralised big business energy to a democratic decentralised internet of renewably produced energy.
Hugh Goulbourne, partner, Global Action Plan
Achievement: For the Big Energy Race 2015 we worked with 39 community volunteers to recruit 4,000 households – on average 115 per community – around the UK, to make 9,000 energy saving actions, resulting in an average saving of £70 per household.
Challenge: In 2016 we want to support 1,000 community energy demand reduction volunteers to engage 100,000 households to make one million energy saving actions. To do this we need volunteers from outside of the community energy space. We’re working with groups including sports clubs and the Scout Association and Girl Guide Association to make this happen and with National Energy Action to understand the most difficult-to-reach households.
Inspiration: Big Energy Race 2015 winner LESS in Lancaster recruited 180 residents to their team. It made me realise the enormous double impact our programme has achieved – empowering households to save energy, CO2 and money and providing community volunteers with the competency to deliver programmes.