Government net zero strategy ‘needs more support for co-ops and community energy’

Community Energy England and Co-operatives UK respond to the government‘s plans for the carbon transition

The government released its net zero strategy yesterday, setting out its policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy in a bid to meet its net zero target by 2050.

It says the strategy “will secure 440,000 well-paid jobs and unlock £90bn in investment in 2030“, with measures designed to drive the transition to new technologies such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, carbon capture, hydrogen, and sustainable aviation fuel alongside plans to restore approximately 280,000 hectares of peat in England by 2050 and create at least 30,000 hectares of woodland per year across the UK by the end of this Parliament.

But critics say the plan falls short, with shadow business secretary Ed Miliband, saying: “The failure to invest does not just affect whether this transition is fair for consumers but also workers in existing industries. Take steel. It will cost £6bn for the steel industry to get to net zero in the next 15 years … but there is nothing for steel in this document.”

And from the co-op movement – which has been cited as the sort of grassroots, democratic model needed to drive citizen engagement in the strategy and involve communities in a more flexible, localised energy system – there are also concerns that the strategy pay no attention to its needs.

In its response to the strategy, Community Energy England – the sector body for energy co-ops and community energy businesses –  said it contains no practical support measures to harness the potential of community energy”.

This is despite an all-party recommendation in April by the Environmental Audit Committee, which highlighted the benefits of community energy in terms of creating jobs, boosting local economies, tackling fuel poverty and engaging citizens engagmeent from community energy.

“We heard that the same benefits will not be achieved if energy decarbonisation is only achieved via commercial, large-scale renewable projects,” the committee warned. “Due to the urgency of the climate crisis and the vital roles communities will have to play in reaching net zero, it is essential that a timely solution to support the long-term growth of community energy across the UK is found.”

Related: “’Our vision is something we could grow to 20 times its current size with just modest support from the government”

CEE added: “The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget said unequivocally, ‘if the people of the UK are not engaged in this challenge – the UK will not deliver Net Zero by 2050… people need to be brought into the decision-making process and derive a sense of ownership of the Net Zero project.’

“Community energy is a key way of engaging people to ‘own’ the Net Zero project and is essential to achieving it.”

The government strategy declares an intention “to work in partnership with people and communities across the country. To do so, we will empower local leaders to kickstart their own net zero initiatives”, but CEE says: “’Local leaders’ seems mostly to mean local government leaders and much of the funding signposted seems to be for local government … This disregards the local leaders of the 424 community energy groups across the UK who have done far more by way of integrating activity on the ground, kickstarting their own net zero initiatives and delivering wider community benefits from them, than the vast majority of council leaders over the last 10 years. 

“Failing to support community energy is planning to fail to meet net zero.“

Related: Mike Smyth from Energy4All on the sector’s needs

However, community energy does not go unmentioned, and the strategy includes case a case study from Cuckmere Community Solar and Riding Sunbeams, who are working with Network Rail to develop solar powered rail. But while it acknowledges the potential of community energy “it omits to say that realising that potential is dependent, at least in part, on some support from government for the sector”, says CEE.

CEE adds: “The Net Zero Strategy boasts of the Rural Community Energy Fund but omits to mention that it ends in April 2022 and that the Urban Community Energy Fund was prematurely withdrawn in 2016 with £8m unspent. No successor to these schemes is promised. 

“It also mentions the support for knowledge sharing given to Community Energy England (a few thousand pounds, with match-funding requirements) and that this ‘can help communities develop their own schemes’. Sadly this is unlikely when the sector struggles to make an investment case for all but very exceptional projects.”

The strategy also mentions the widening of the Industry Voluntary Redress Scheme to include Community Energy from 2022,l but CEE argues that this “fails to mention that this only applies to 30% of the available funding which would be a maximum of around £2.3m a year”.

CEE adds: “We are informed that support for community energy may be forthcoming early next year, depending on the departmental budget that BEIS receives in the Comprehensive Spending Review. This will very much depend on BEIS ministers being convinced that it is important and good value for money over the next four months. 

It calls on members to write to their MP “expressing your extreme disappointment that the government did not follow the advice of the Environmental Audit Committee to ’emphasise the importance of community energy in the Net Zero Strategy” and put in place “practical support measures to harness the potential of community energy’.

James Wright, policy officer at Co-operatives UK, also called for more recognition for the community energy sector.

He said: “It takes 262 pages before the strategy really gets to grips with the potentially instrumental role communities and co-operation can play in achieving net zero on a societal scale. When they come, these acknowledgments are mostly right on the money. But the strategic and tactical thinking about how government will actually utilise community and co-operation to achieve its net zero goals, is clearly lacking.

“Throughout the rest of the strategy, on domestic heat and home retrofit, onshore renewable deployment, agriculture, food, transport and SMEs, government repeatedly identifies societal, behavioral and financial challenges that already have proven community and co-operation-based solutions. If government can build large-scale proliferation of these solutions into its delivery, it’ll be on to a winner.”

However, he welcomed recognition in the strategy that SMEs will need help in the transition to net zero.

“Our latest research suggests that 40% of co-ops could benefit from grants to help develop and implement net zero plans,” he said, “while 20% would need investment support to finance their transitions. We are encouraged that the British Business Bank has been tasked with supporting SMEs to move towards net zero, but for this to be useful to co-ops the bank will need to adapt its current investment products to cater to the distinctive features of their model.”

Mr Wright said the co-op movement is also calling on the UK government to provide global leadership on a “just transition”, adding: “It’s good to see the $100bn a year ambition for climate aid. We really hope COP26 can deliver this in the years to come.”

He warned: “The strategy is very, very light on UK consumption, which is a huge part of our carbon footprint. Reference to climate considerations in trade deals is encouraging but it’s hardly committal. Leaks from BEIS this week give us a glimpse of a government flinching here, which is concerning.”