We are at an interesting junction in the evolution of community energy in the UK. The path to creating ownership of energy generation at the local level has never been easy, but as we make our way through 2013, it seems that the government has finally awakened to the cause, and community energy groups are mushrooming all across the UK. Although we are still lagging behind our German cousins in the total number of cooperatives that exist in this space, momentum is certainly growing.
Here at Carbon Leapfrog, we are proud to be part of this movement. Carbon Leapfrog was created over six years ago by visionary founders, and has supported more than 60 project groups in some shape or form, most of which have since become firmly planted in the community energy space.
As a business-led charity, Carbon Leapfrog provides carbon-reduction projects with thousands of hours of support from firms within its network, ranging from deciphering sticky legislation, drafting template contracts, and developing models that everyone could benefit from. This expertise, worth over a million pounds, is delivered to supported projects pro-bono (or, for the non-lawyers out there, for free!).
A few of the groups that have received support from Leapfrog’s network, such as Bath & West Community Energy and Community Energy Warwickshire, have inspired others to establish their own community energy organisations.
These progressive organisations span across the UK and champion a variety of energy-efficient technologies, but they share a joint belief that we are on the brink of an energy revolution. At the heart of this revolution is the community, as more and more people realize that owning and controlling the means to produce the energy they use is essential to creating a clean, low-carbon economy.
This energy revolution is still young but, from what we’ve seen, the quality of renewable energy projects has improved dramatically in as little as three years. Community energy groups today are more and more professional and ambitious. There is even talk of community groups leading initiatives such as installing multi-MV solar PV panels or developing innovative finance solutions in the vein of the Green Deal. Newer groups wishing to join the community energy movement have access to the experience of a multitude of mature organisations with completed projects under their belt, including Bath & West Community Energy, Wey Valley Solar Schools, Basingstoke Community Energy, Ouse Valley Energy Services Company (OVESCO), and Carbon Co-Op (take a look at their websites for the latest updates on renewable energy news in the UK). The path to creating sustainable energy is now well-trodden and struggling community groups should be heartened to know that there are now in excess of 40 groups who have delivered projects across the UK, some of which are on their second, third, and fourth installations.
This is not to say that the process of completing a community energy project is easy. There are many barriers that community groups face before they can get a concept off the ground, such as setting up a legal entity, finding a site for the project, getting legal and financials in place, stirring community interest, and securing the funds to cover capital costs. Moreover, while there are ever-increasing volumes of quality information available for community groups, they are scattered and in disarray.
So what does the future hold?
Much depends on the government’s ability to get the right mix of policy instruments in place and ensuring that the Energy Bill works in favour of community groups. The long-awaited Community Energy Strategy, due out in the autumn and about might or might not create a road map for this. Government will have to iron out major obstacles in the planning environment whilst ensuring tariff rates remain predictable. However, as ex-MP to Nottingham Alan Simpson notes, “community energy has grown in spite of the government, as opposed to because of it”, and we are convinced that, in the near future, community energy will be an established industry with experienced players and a continued increase of start-ups, contributing to a significant portion of UK’s energy generation.
One of the more pressing issues that may impede this growth right now is the public’s wariness of alternative sources of finance such as non-banking commercial finance, local community share offers and crowdfunding platforms such as Abundance Generation and Microgenius. These sources of funding have been tried and tested, and we hope that in the future, with the maturing industry, more community groups will be comfortable with the concept of alternative finance as a means to overcome planning finance.
As for us, over the past few years, while we helped dozens of projects from conception into reality, we became increasingly worried that it is not enough to simply support organisations with expertise. And while alternative sources of finance such as community share offers are great, not every community is wealthy enough to fund every deserving project. This is something we were keen to tackle, and this is where our long-standing relationship with PURE the Clean Planet Trust presented an opportunity.
With their Community Energy Fund, PURE offers low-interest loans to renewable energy projects delivered by not for profit organisation. We are building a strategic partnership with PURE and hope that our unique blend of support and low cost finance will help more projects happen within the ownership and control of community organisations.
We truly believe that the joint effort of community energy groups today will snowball into a much, much wider movement toward renewable energy and a sustainable economy across the UK. The catalyst that will allow all of this to become a reality is you. So much of the future of community energy rests on the shoulders of dedicated, concerned residents that it is imperative for you to get involved. Perhaps you have developed a new model, or created innovative ways of addressing the low carbon agenda. Maybe you are looking to develop community energy in particularly deprived areas in the UK, or just want to lend a hand. Get in touch! If community energy can grow so radically in the past three years with only a few key players, imagine what could happen if dozens more organisations or individuals are rallied to the cause.
We are keen to talk to groups with smaller scale renewable energy projects that need finance and/or expertise to make them happen. We are also keen to explore options with established groups that could use additional funds to create more projects. Our number is (0)207 825 3973 if you want to discuss a project with us.
Post Author: Alex Germanis
Image Credits: Sourced from Carbon Leapfrog