As we watch southern Europe burning, most people agree that the global heating crisis is serious and urgent, and that a key to this is the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. But for every specific shift in a “green” direction there is a “green” counterargument. Since the human brain is programmed to prioritise losses over gains, the people who stand to lose shout loudest, and in a democracy politicians are reluctant to overrule them.
Green arguments: for versus against
Renewable technologies are popular, but especially with people who would not be directly affected. And the objections often come from other environmental interests. A barrage across the Wash could generate huge amounts of tidal energy, but it would disrupt a sensitive coastal ecology and bird migration routes. However, we are seeing a worrying rise in sea temperatures round Britain, which may do even more damage.
Onshore wind generation is cheap and quick to install, but many people find the turbines unsightly, especially at the bottom of their gardens. The cheapest place to install large scale solar power is on greenfield sites, but this can take agricultural land out of use, at a time when we are seeking to become more sustainable in food. Offshore wind has expanded dramatically, but people object to the new overhead power lines needed to take the power to where it is needed. Some argue that nuclear power is the greenest possible source of electricity, but others fear long term safety risks, and resource demands.
So, we often have deadlock, or at best long delays. When local objectors are overruled by central government, this increases distrust in our democratic processes. This is a particular problem in one of the most centralised democracies, where most decisions ultimately are made in Whitehall.
Give control to local communities
Community energy is an emerging alternative strategy, which hopes to overcome some of these problems. The principle is simple: if local people have a stake in a development, they are much more likely to support it.
Operating as a nonprofit organisation, a Community Energy project can bring together local volunteers and experts to find solutions and services tailored to the needs and preferences of the community itself. Local people can decide what to do, and invest in local projects, in return for reduced electricity prices, dividends from the profits, and funding for local development projects, including services for disadvantaged groups. Sometimes the money is locally raised, sometimes in partnership with commercial organisations, or with grant funding.
The overarching national body for the sector is Community Energy England. Its Annual Report shows that, while most community energy organisations fund and operate electricity generation (solar, wind and hydro), they also do other things. Many provide advice on insulation and energy efficiency, and install systems. Others install local EV charging points, neighbourhood heating systems, and battery storage.
A growing movement
The movement has been growing rapidly. There are now over 200 Community Energy organisations, involving over 217,000 people, and in 2021 they raised £21 million for new projects. Currently they are generating over 300 megawatts of renewable energy, with plans to reach 5 gigawatts by 2030, supporting 8,700 jobs and adding £1.8 billion to the economy.
In 2021, Community Energy organisations distributed £1.35 million to community projects. In addition to energy related projects, these included sports clubs, local food growing, biodiversity, carbon reduction, fuel poverty and general environmental projects.
Some projects are small – rooftop solar on a village hall or primary school, but others are much larger. Bath and West Community Energy, for example, hopes, by 2026 to be providing electricity to 17% of local households, with up to 100 solar roof top schemes, 12 wind turbines and 60 acres of ground mounted solar panels.
Activity in the East
In East Anglia, Community Energy England has mapped over 50 projects. The greatest activity is in Suffolk, with 15, and Norfolk with 8. 43 are solar, and 5 are community heating schemes. There are also single projects involving hydroelectricity, energy efficiency, wind and transport. One example is the community heating initiative in Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire, which we reported on in 2021.
In 2018 Suffolk Climate Change Partnership, formed by the County Council and its District Councils, won the national Local Authority Award, for the Local Authority that has done most to help local community energy organisations through partnering, investing, policy or other support.
What is stopping expansion?
Community Energy England’s report identifies a series of blockages which are restricting the development of community energy. A major factor is uncertainty about the future of national funding programmes. Government frequently changes the grant schemes and rules, and policies often favour large scale commercial generators. At present the National Grid will only install the connections when a project is built, which introduces still further delays.
One of the challenges to major expansion in green energy is the time it takes to train workers, create new suppliers and secure local consent.
A Labour plan
Climate is one of the Labour Party’s five “missions”, and they plan to be spending £26 billion a year on it by the mid-point of the Parliament. Some were disappointed when they retreated from the plan to do this in year one, but it is probably realistic, given the need to build up a workforce, investment, and production capacity.
They intend to create a publicly-owned company – “GB Energy” – which would own, manage, operate and support energy generation projects. The 217,000 people already involved in community energy are a major resource to support all these.
The plan has been welcomed by Community Energy England, especially for its remit to provide £400 million a year in low interest loans to community energy projects, and £600 million a year to Local Authorities.
That would be a huge boost to a community sector which has grown dramatically since 2010. They believe they are ready to go much further.