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The community energy revolution is evolving, and the future’s bright
The UK’s fourth Community Energy Fortnight exemplified the resilience, passion and innovation that will ensure the sector rides out recent blows and continues to grow.
Community energy pioneers have a right to feel bruised given the recent cuts to feed-in tariffs, broken promises around tax relief and proposed exclusion of co-ops from the new Innovative Finance ISA. The sector had been on the verge of take-off in 2015: with £27 million of equity raised in just twelve months for projects in England alone. But fast forward to 2016, and Co-operatives UK report that the number of start-ups has fallen by an enormous 80% (year to date).
So it was timely for this year’s Fortnight to focus on ‘Powering Forward’ – and not only celebrate successful current projects, but also precipitate an exploration of new business models and technologies.
The Fortnight was once again launched with a marquee conference, organised by Co-operative Energy and Community Energy England. This year’s sell-out event was the largest yet seen in the UK, with over three hundred activists and practitioners in attendance: the demand was such that we needed to broadcast proceedings live across Europe via the internet.
Many themes excited debate in the Fortnight; none more so than the opportunities provided by energy demand management. Work is very much at the R&D stage and takes many guises. In the South West of England, RegenSW and others are running a Sunshine Tariff trial that seeks to reward customers who match demand with local, off-peak solar generation. At Co-operative Energy, we are working with Energy Local on a similar SWELL trial in Oxfordshire – whereby households see shifts in time of use rewarded with co-op shopping vouchers! In Bethesda, north Wales we’re going further still with Energy Local, via an Energy Club (Cyd Ynni – Ynni Lleol) which will recruit one hundred households, deploy smart meters and seek to match usage to a local National Trust hydro scheme.
Another area of major consideration was how we might improve our collective lobbying and advocacy work in light of political realities, but also the formation of the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and its ministers who have a track record of supporting social enterprise. For example, it would boost community energy (and sub-50kw rooftop solar projects in particular) if BEIS would agree the reintroduction of the tariff guarantee element of pre-registration for community energy groups and schools – a measure that would be revenue neutral. There may also still be opportunities at a European level should the UK progress continued access to the single market – which could entail us implementing a forthcoming Renewable Energy Directive that is likely to be highly supportive of a citizen’s right to generate and consume renewable energy.
Fortunately, it's still the case that community energy retains the overwhelming backing of the UK public, as revealed in the latest ICM polling from Co-operative Energy. And we are still seeing the emergence of resourceful community energy projects (albeit more slowly right now) such as the Small Wind Coop turbines in Wales and Scotland and the Resilience Centre’s Mounteneys and Cherry Rock Wind turbines – all of which, incidentally, will be available for purchase via our User Chooser once operational. Not forgetting the wonderful Energy4All (who have now established an amazing 24 energy coops), Pure Leapfrog (who’s dedicated £15m community energy bridge facility is the envy of Europe) and RegenSW (who’s work on grid connectivity is second to none).
But in all likelihood, the next stage in the community energy journey is likely to be one of evolution – with radical new business models and technologies emerging to take the community energy revolution to the next stage. Which means that Community Energy Fortnight 2017 may turn out to be the most interesting yet!
Ramsay Dunning, Co-operative Energy.