Community energy: what’s the point?
Many have asked me this question. For the lay-person, comparing community to commercial energy is a little like comparing Tesco to a local corner-shop; the latter provides more benefits to the local community and, if you like your local community, you’re hopefully happy to pay that extra 10p for a loaf of bread.
However, people I’ve worked with and respected have cynically asked what is the purpose of community energy – often citing one of these three arguments:
- Community energy projects are typically affluent investor cooperatives focused on solar or wind. The investors often aren’t that local, yet they reap the rewards of green taxes (the Feed In Tariff) further compounding the problem of the poorest in our society paying the most for their utilities.
- Community energy groups don’t suite everyone. They are often comprised of sandal-wearing, tree-hugging vegans. They seem unlikely to engage the entire population.
- The community energy movement will never have the resources or capabilities of larger, commercial outfits: who have better technical skills, knowledge of how the systems work and ability to raise finance. Therefore, community energy will cost more than commercial operations.
Do these sound harsh but somewhat true? If so, why am I and others still interested and supporting this movement?
You see, the UK’s energy sector is a little like a football game: the two teams playing against each other are the status quo (Big Six) and community energy. The Big Six have been firm favourites, playing at home by generating and selling to themselves, with heaps of support ranging from investment banks to the wider fossil-fuel industry. Why would they change their tactics, if they’re winning the game?
Team Community Energy have a battle to win. They face a referee, Ofgem, who neither understands nor can favour them. The linesmen aren’t much use either: neither the distribution network operators nor planning system can currently favour community-led projects. They are only interested in each team playing by the rules on a level playing field.
For me, the purpose of community energy is the resulting final score. Little by little, partly through reinvesting profits and mainly via their engagement: they are helping create an energy sector I’m proud of. They are helping change tactics and bring about change.
They are engaging both their communities and the wider energy system in the importance of sustainable energy, helping decarbonise and make energy prices fairer; they are delivering renewable generation with only marginal profit; they are questioning why and helping change a system that favours larger producers, sellers and consumers – wondering whether real-time smart energy tariffs could benefit the system as a whole and, more importantly, why a necessary service-sector doesn’t provide the support to those in most need of affordable energy.
Community energy is engaging, educating and informing the development of the UK energy system for an environmentally and socially fairer future.
When you look further than the renewable energy cooperatives, you see the potential this movement posses. Local authorities and not-for-profit sustainable energy organisations bolster the capabilities of the communities they support; and community groups include those advocating and delivering energy savings, and those whose non-energy focus is intertwined with a fairer energy system. They all need our support.
I support them, along with thousands. Energy suppliers are joining; especially those breaking the Big Six strangle-hold like Ecotricity, Good Energy and Ovo. Even investors, like Triodos, are taking interest.
With growing support from the government (FIFA?); I hope the tactics and persuasions of the referee and linesmen will change, and the support for the movement grows to cheer on a much-needed transformation of the UK energy sector.