Staff and students from the School’s Energy Co-operative’s 50th install. Image: Andrew Wiard

We’ve just finished a fantastic two weeks’ celebrating all things community energy across Community Energy Fortnight, with innovation, collaboration and resilience consistent themes emerging from the many debates, discussions and panels at events across the UK.

The positivity from the sector is welcome, because on the face of it there are many many reasons to be downbeat.

Community Energy Fortnight also saw the publication of our latest State of the Sector report, which shows that 2018 was the toughest year yet for the sector. New generation capacity fell steeply in comparison to previous years; just 7.9MW of new community energy capacity was installed, including 7.2MW across 47 new solar sites and 0.7MW across four micro hydro schemes (compared to 33.5MW of new community energy capacity in 2017).

Of the organisations that did have new community energy projects in 2018 most were found to centre on urban areas, particularly London, Brighton, Bournemouth, Bristol and Cardiff. These projects were most often small-scale rooftop solar PV or initiatives focused on energy efficiency.

Solar PV capacity was dominated by Yealm Community Energy’s on-going purchase of the Community Energy 5MW Newton Downs solar farm from CORE Partners. The remaining 2.2MW of solar PV capacity was found to be rooftop based, including 12 new solar school installations by the Energy4All supported Schools’ Energy Co-operative.

On an exciting note, the Schools’ Energy Co-operative celebrated their 50th school to have a solar installation during Community Energy Fortnight, with the children and staff of Perivale Primary School in Ealing, London, proudly showcasing their clean energy scheme to the local press.

But I think the message from Mike Smyth, chair of the Schools’ Energy Co-operative, echoed the sentiments of many other groups, when he expressed his pride at reaching the milestone, but warned that: “This is also bittersweet, as it comes in the wake of government closing the Feed in Tariff scheme. 

“The closure of the Tariff means fewer schools will be able to install solar. Now only schools that fit a particular, narrow criteria in terms of geographical position and type of roof will be able to develop financially viable schemes. It’s incredibly frustrating that just as children and their parents are becoming more engaged in the fight to tackle climate change through campaigns like the Schools Strikes movement, we're having to roll-back projects that first-hand demonstrate everything from energy generation, to the science curriculum in action and raise awareness about careers in the renewable energy sector.”

Which brings me back to those core themes from Community Energy Fortnight, and also quite frankly to the fact that this is a movement built primarily by volunteers, passionate ones at that. We won’t give up and we will continue to lobby for change to Government policy and taking up opportunities when they arise.

Whilst the Feed-in-Tariff has now closed, our survey that helped us create the State of the Sector report found that 72% of community energy organisations stated they planned to continue with their energy activities in 2019. Electricity generation was planned by 88 organisations; all hoped to pre-accredit or pre-register solar PV installations before the March 2019 Feed-in-Tariff deadline, or to develop projects behind the meter.

This means that solar schemes will continue to be developed, and whilst this isn’t the sector growing, it’s key to maintain a stream of projects coming to fruition. We want local communities to carry on seeing schemes happen in their neighbourhoods, with more people able to access the benefits of community energy.

There’s positive news too. In recent weeks the announcement of the Rural Community Energy Fund from the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy, the Mayor of London’s Community Energy Fund, and the Next Generation Fund from Power to Change are welcome boosts to the sector, but we still think that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the attitude of central government towards community energy.

That’s why we’re calling for the reinstatement of Social Investment Tax Relief (SITR). SITR is the government’s tax relief for social investment for trading social enterprises. It is intended to kick-start the market for social investment by encouraging individuals to support social enterprises and certain charities, and helping these enterprises access new sources of finance.

Historically community energy projects have been excluded because the government said they benefitted from other subsidies. These subsidies have now been removed, so we think it’s time to include community renewable energy projects as an eligible activity for SITR tax relief. We think this will encourage more investors to get involved with energy schemes and help provide the funds needed to get through the development stage so they can start delivering the social impact at their heart.

And we know we’re not alone in thinking that SITR is a reasonable request to make. A recent poll by Co-op Energy found that eight in ten, or 82%, of respondents, a record high, think the Government should do more to help local communities generate their own energy, and two in three, 69%, think the Government should change its mind and once again offer tax relief to those individuals who take the risk of investing in community energy.

Responsible businesses are also stepping in and acting now to support community energy as the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) provides little comfort to community schemes. Co-op Energy and Bristol Energy are just two organisations that have pledged to help community energy groups find a route to market for their energy, and that they commit to paying a fair price for it. We’re talking with other suppliers and stakeholders to encourage them to act now, rather than wait for the SEG system to be refined and rolled-out.

There’s no doubting that community energy is facing a tricky time, but I think we will find the right way forward so more communities can develop more exciting schemes to help us transition to a more equitable, cleaner, greener energy market with people at its core.