Community energy ‘needs government backing in fight against climate change’

A report on the UK sector says it can help with rising energy bills and support local economies – but it also faces another challenging year

A new report on the UK community energy sector warns it faces its most challenging year ever and calls on the government to support its efforts on local climate action, jobs, community wealth-building and energy bills.

The State of the Sector 2002 report, compiled by Community Energy England (CEE), Community Energy Scotland and Community Energy Wales, is critical of the government’s continued inaction on the sector, despite a recommendation for support from MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee. 

However, the sector managed a number of achievements in 2021, delivering “new community owned renewable electricity generation, new jobs, millions in community benefit and savings to bill-payers, and is leading on the emergency response to the energy bill crisis”.

These include £21.5m raised in investments for new projects across the UK, with £15m of community energy income spent in local economies.

The sector saw a 38% increase in the delivery of community-led energy efficiency and energy saving services, the report adds, and there are now 123 community energy organisations working on local energy efficiency. Projects include fuel poverty and energy advice, building improvement, community education, and direct funding to localities. Energy efficiency interventions are estimated to have reached 57,600 people or organisations and saved over £3.3m for UK households.

Survey data recently released by Ofgem suggests UK households would back more urgent action, with 41% of consumers now concerned about the affordability of household bills, and declining consumer satisfaction with fossil fuel providers across the country.

Duncan Law, acting co-CEO (policy & advocacy) at CEE, said: “Community energy organisations across the UK continue to explore new ways to accelerate the transition to a fair, sustainable, smart and net zero energy system. The State of the Sector 2022 report highlights not only the increasing local engagement and impact of community energy projects, but also the sector’s adaptability and resilience in the absence of support from government.

“Community energy will continue determinedly to drive local climate action and deliver community benefit. With a little investment from the government it could grow exponentially and be the indispensable local champions of net zero.”

Scott Mathieson, director of planning and regulation at SP Energy Networks, added: “We are delighted to support the State of the Sector report for a fourth year. This year’s report is providing timely data for us, which we will be studying carefully to ensure we can support our local communities in the best possible way to help them realise their net zero ambitions.”

The report calls on the government to create a national community energy fund to invest in and re-mobilise community energy. It also wants ministers to “prioritise demand reduction and behaviour change by enabling community energy leadership in retrofit, energy advice/ fuel poverty alleviation for the energy crisis”.

And they should “put community energy at the heart of local energy planning initiatives”, it adds.

This would require a change of tack from the government. The report warns that “despite COP26 and increasing public support for renewable energy, government support mechanisms have been removed and in 2021 the sector installed only 7.6 MW of new electricity generation capacity”.

It adds: “This is a notable achievement given the additional challenges of the Covid pandemic, but when seen alongside a 65% increase in the number of organisations reporting stalled projects, totalling 68mW, the slowdown indicates the significant potential of the sector held back, in part, by the government making it harder rather than easier for communities to take their own action towards net zero.”

Community energy groups have increasingly used their own resources to provide a growing number of local activities, says the report including: community workshops and cafes; energy switching and energy monitoring support surgeries; building energy audits and retrofit assessments; installation advice on clean energy tech such as heat pumps; insulation and draught proofing services; an glazing and lighting refurbishment services.

The sector has also provided over 4,000 recipients with over £470,000 of direct support through community funds and other mechanisms, to support building upgrades for those not able to pay, training for local energy advice champions, and fuel vouchers for those in energy poverty.

Community energy organisations had a total community benefit fund value last year of £4.9m across 98 organisations, and distributed £1.35m, the report adds.

Now, Community Energy England is using the data in the report to lobby ministers to support more localised energy services for the coming winter. The organisation offers training to help local leaders attain National Energy Action’s City and Guilds Energy Awareness Level 3 qualification for energy advice and fuel poverty delivery. 

The report is being released for Community Energy Fortnight (11-24 June) with events following the theme of ‘Efficiency First’. On Saturday 18 June in Bristol, Community Energy England, with Bristol Energy Network, is hosting its Energy Transition Conference: Communities delivering local net zero