Community Energy Scotland (CES) has expressed its deep disappointment today at the UK Government’s announcement of the new Community Energy Fund. The fund, which is only available in England, was announced by the Government as an alternative to allowing amendments to the Energy Bill that would have allowed community energy schemes across the UK to sell their clean, renewable power to local people – and provide a guaranteed price for their electricity.
Following CES’s initial support for the amendments, as well as providing extensive input on what this fund should look like if they were not to go through, Community Energy Scotland have expressed their surprise and frustration both at the amendments being dropped and that the announced fund excludes Scotland, and have issued a call on the UK Government to rethink this decision.
Community Energy Scotland calls on the UK government to commit to the inclusion of local energy trading through the Review of Electricity Markets Arrangements (REMA) and to commit a portion of the Community Energy Fund to the devolved nations in order to ensure that communities all across the UK can take advantage of the huge opportunities in energy and decarbonisation.
Responding to the announcement, Community Energy Scotland’s CEO Zoë Holliday said;
“The argument from the UK Government that this fund replaces the inclusion of the community energy amendments in the Energy Bill doesn’t hold up.
“The potential for community renewable energy to benefit local economies is continuing to be blocked by unfair regulations; local communities are prevented from selling energy that they produce to local people and in turn tackling fuel poverty; increasing local resilience; and investing locally in communities. The impact of the Community Energy Fund will be trivial compared to the opportunities that communities could have had if these amendments went through.
“Furthermore, the proposed amendments in the Energy Bill would have had a positive impact for community energy groups across the UK, so it does not make any sense that any fund that is being launched instead of the amendments (or to act as a bridge until such time as regulations are improved for the better) applies only to England.
“While we appreciate and commend the Scottish Government’s consistent support for the CARES programme, any new additional funding in lieu of a UK wide change on legislation should be available to community groups across the UK, including our over 400 members in Scotland, either by allowing communities in Wales and Scotland to apply to the new Community Energy Fund or by allocating a certain proportion of this additional new money to be allocated to the devolved nations to distribute via their existing programmes.”
A reinvented community energy sector could play a key role in making the net zero transition a socially just one; but it will need support from policy.
Looking long term
Today, the dominant activity in UK community energy – at least in terms of what brings in money – is renewable electricity generation, at small and medium scales. But getting new projects of this sort up and running has been much harder since the closure of the Feed-in Tariff scheme two years ago.
Now obviously, community energy groups are NOT just in it for the money, and they’re not strangers to working for free! Nevertheless, spending power is, well, power. You can use it to pay staff, supporting the local economy and ensuring your organisation survives; to support other local groups; or build affordable housing. So the question arises – where will it come from in the future? And not just next month, or next year, but in the longer term?
Here is where the current talk in energy policy circles, of the future energy system being decentralised, decarbonised, and ‘consumer’ centred, seems to offer bright prospects to community energy. So, amid the end-of-FITs gloom, we brought practitioners, policymakers and other stakeholders together to scope out a hopeful long term vision. We asked them to picture a future where community energy is thriving. What do you see community energy groups doing? How are they organised? And crucially: who needs to do what to make it happen?
Expanded and diversified
The key message is that community energy could become much more than electricity generation, but could spread into all parts of the energy system. Yes they would still generate electricity – but they would sell it to local customers as well as national wholesalers, and they would trade flexible demand on behalf of local residents. They would using pricing power and technical know-how to address fuel poverty and the digital divide. Some would run ‘mixed mobility’ services – buses, car clubs and more; or heat networks in off-gas-grid areas and new-build developments. Some organisations might focus on one or two complementary activities – others might embrace many, as illustrated in our graphic. But through this technological change, the focus is always on social and environmental outcomes.
Achieving this would require change in the shape and scale of community energy – as shown in the graphic. The boundaries of the sector might become ‘fuzzy’, with partnerships with other community groups, housing bodies and local authorities more common.
We also saw potential for more partnerships with other community energy groups across multiple localities, in a member-controlled Confederation. This would be a ‘coop of coops’ style organisation, a bit like Energy4All or the emerging Big Solar Coop, but on an even larger scale. Its purpose would be to help resolve the perennial tension between achieving economies of scale, and preserving local groups’ roots in their communities. This would require a shift in thinking for the sector, perhaps. But, with E4A and others (also e.g. Communities for Renewables) paving the way, more evolution than revolution.
Making it happen
If this vision sounds good, the big question is: how to make it happen? Community energy activists have plenty of experience of learning new technologies and adapting to change. This, and their skills in partnership working, will be called on increasingly in the future. But there will need to be policy changes too. The list is long, but includes central government regulating to give smaller players a better chance of surviving the energy market; and governments from devolved to regional to local levels purchasing from and investing in community energy.
Yet policymakers may see the sector as inevitably small, whose role in the energy transition is more about cultural change than operational delivery. Of course, community energy has long argued that it is about ‘more than megawatts’. But our vision shows the sector with a significant operational role. How to convince the policymakers that this is desirable – and feasible?
Firstly, ideas matter; and the concept of ‘Just Transition’ could be important. Scotland launched its own Just Transition Commission last year. Wales has had a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act for some time. Some might argue that a techno-transition could be managed top-down. But surely an inclusive and just energy transition needs, not just grassroots participation, but grassroots power and ownership?
Secondly, dare we say it, policymakers could be directed to look to Europe. Severalcountries have large, operationally-focussed community and cooperative energy sectors. Why can’t the UK?
Finally, evidence of the benefits of community energy is important. I’m looking forward to reading the latest research on this from CAG Consultants, launched in Community Energy Fortnight – and hope this can play a part in setting us on the road to a thriving future for community energy.
At Community Energy Scotland we value our team’s and communities’ opinions. Blogs are a chance for us, our members and guests to share personal opinions and expertise, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Community Energy Scotland as an organisation. Please note opinions may change and Community Energy Scotland does not offer any endorsements.