The ideas of "community empowerment" and "keeping it local" are becoming increasingly fashionable as the government makes steps towards a decentralised energy system. Combined with volatile power prices and possible shortages of supply, Community Energy is becoming a more and more popular choice for those wishing to avoid the uncertainties of the energy market. Community energy projects have an emphasis on local leadership, engagement and overall control with the local community benefiting collectively.
One of the driving forces in this shift has been the desire (seemingly stemming from both the national and local level) for people to take more control over their energy supply and usage. In a time where increased energy consumption, threat of black-outs and consideration for the source of supply are ever more at the forefront of peoples' consciousness, an awareness of where this energy originates and how it is produced is becoming increasingly apparent.
By 2020 every UK household will be equipped with a smart meter, encouraging energy efficiency by showing real-time data for individual power usage. As switching between suppliers becomes progressively simple and immediate, people are able to take control of their energy mix and costs through more transparent choice of supplier. This opening of the market compliments the arrival of community energy as an alternative model for approaching energy usage.
Benefits for Community Energy Groups
There are many examples of community energy projects across the UK, with at least 5,000 community groups undertaking energy initiatives in the last five years. Examples of community energy projects include:
- Community-owned renewable electricity installations
- Communities switching to a renewable heat sources
- Community groups supporting energy saving measures
- Working in partnership with the local DNO to pilot smart technologies
- Collective purchasing of heating oil for off gas-grid communities
- Collective switching of electricity or gas suppliers.
As the sector opens up to this community engagement, the opportunities for collaboration between different players in the field grow. Partnerships have been emerging through the benefits that are given to community groups such as carve-outs in the recent subsidy cuts and national funds which are available as explained below.
The recent sector cuts to support for onshore wind and solar have included extensions to deadlines for support for those groups who are able to consider themselves a community energy group, such as Community Interest Companies (CICs), co-operatives or Community Benefit societies, giving these groups an advantage over purely commercial developers.
One of the remaining support mechanisms not subject to such drastic cuts is the Renewables Heat Incentive (RHI), which has been promised £1.15 billion of expenditure up to 2021. The RHI provides payments for heat produced renewably for up to 20 years and is open to communities. As well as receiving RHI payments, community groups generating heat can sell the heat produced to provide a supplementary income stream.
There are also various funds available which Community Energy Groups may be eligible to apply for in order to help fund their projects, such as the CSE's Rural and Urban Community Energy Funds.
Other community considerations: planning restrictions for large onshore wind projects
Another angle to consider in this shift towards decentralised energy policy is the authority that is being given to local communities to decide which type of power they wish to allow in their community. From 1 March 2016 the planning regime for Onshore wind farms is changing; developments of over 50MW will require planning permission, with local residents having the final say on whether a project will go ahead.
This brings the position for 50MW+ and onshore wind farms into line with the position for smaller wind projects. It also means that onshore wind is the only type of 50MW+ project that faces this restriction, showing it is essential to keep local residents on side when considering a development of this nature.