DECC wants to see ‘upsurge’ in community energy involvement

The head of community energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said yesterday that the government wants to see an “upsurge” in community-generated energy projects, while acknowledging serious barriers exist in policy.

Talking at a panel discussion, Steering a clear path to successful community energy in London, Fiona Booth of DECC talked about what has taken place since the launch of what she called the UK’s “landmark” community energy strategy document in January of this year.

Booth talked up developments such as the formation of Oxford City Council’s £2.3 million community energy fund, the launch of Community Energy England to match similar schemes in Wales and Scotland and the inception of the £15 million Rural Community Energy Fund that have all taken place in the past eight months. There will also be an urban counterpart to the rural fund, planned for later this year.

“We want to see more than 31 working energy suppliers in the country, and the Big Six take up 95% of the market,” Booth said.

“We want to see an upsurge from local groups and we are also trying to remove those barriers that we know exist.”

Booth said there had been “a lot of positive and inspiring stuff out there. However, there are a lot of contentious issues that can contradict what we’ve put in the strategy such as the Financial Conduct Authority’s Renewable Energy Co-op Changes.

“It’s the first strategy that the UK has but for the first time ever it’s a sign that communities have been recognised in official policy and that community energy is not just fluffy or nice to do but can contribute to powering a million homes by 2020,” she added.

The community energy department, itself started in April, is targeting 3GW of community owned generation projects in the UK by 2020. The department has also formed various working groups, with panel members including Philip Wolfe, former chairman of BP Solar, who has been involved in solar energy since 1975. In addition to serving on various steering committees and advisory groups, Wolfe is currently chairman of the country’s largest community-owned solar project, Westmill Solar Co-Operative.

Wolfe was in attendance at the panel event and spoke after Booth. In comparing working on community projects, as opposed to commercial developments, Wolfe said community projects found some aspects of development such as obtaining planning permission to be easier, since they were embedded in local areas and often had popular support. He said however that due to the need to work democratically, with less of a hierarchical aspect, the consensual nature of community energy meant that development typically happens more slowly than commercial projects.

Wolfe was also damning of current policy, which he said, broadly speaking, favoured the incumbent energy industry.

“Communities, because they work slower, they are disadvantaged if a policy is changing all the time and quite frankly in renewables, and in energy generally, it is. That’s extremely hard for communities. If a commercial developer is under pressure that a tariff is going to go down in three months time, they’ll build it in two and a half months. If a community wants to build a project in that time they usually just can’t react in time.

“The way policy in the energy sector works actually plays into the hands of the incumbents,  the government says ‘we don’t want the big six to be so strongly in control’ but actually the way they do energy policy means that the Big Six will stay in control. The whole regulatory system, the policy system plays into the hands of the incumbents. There’s a lot of mixed messages in the policy.”

Wolfe however praised the work of Booth’s newly formed department so far. Will Dawson from pressure group Forum for the Future agreed that policy as it stands strongly favours those with deeper pockets in energy efficiency also.

Meanwhile Andrew Jones, managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at grid company S&C Electric said that his company’s voluntary work with Low Carbon Swansea had yielded strong results already purely through exchange of best practices. According to Jones, carbon use in Swansea has dropped by 34% since the scheme began, with “no money, just by sharing best practices”.

A lively discussion with the floor ensued, with contributions from community groups including Hackney Energy.