Renewable energy is on the rise. It made up more than a quarter of global electricity generation (27%) in 2019 and is outpacing all other energy sources’ growing capacity. Nevertheless, it is still not growing fast enough to meet climate targets, and there are big choices to be made about which models and visions for solar, wind, tidal and other renewable energy technology take precedence. Different approaches have different results in terms of job creation, spreading economic benefits, building support for the rapid energy transition and even enhancing democracies. There is a spectrum of approaches ranging from large scale with centralised ownership, to smaller, mixed, decentralised and community run energy infrastructures. Energy systems don’t work in isolation from the rest of the economy, so which are most likely to meet the broad range of human and ecological needs? The rapid rise of community energy shows striking promise.
Francesco La Camera runs IRENA, the intergovernmental group promoting global clean energy transition, and he points out the extra benefits of more localised approaches,
Decentralised solutions tend to be comparatively labour-intensive. Adopting renewables can therefore create employment and boost local income in both developed and developing energy markets. Employment in the sector, which reached 11 million jobs worldwide in 2018, could quadruple by 2050, while jobs in energy efficiency and system flexibility could grow by another 40 million.
According to IRENA, going fast and far enough in the energy transition requires flexibility and the “need for innovative technologies, business models and behavioural adaptation to reach zero emissions,” setting the stage for community renewable energy.
Previously we featured a case study about the Danish island of Samsø having successfully moved its entire energy source from fossil fuels to renewables in just ten years. By 2007, Samsø became the world’s first 100% renewable energy-powered island, and is often cited as one of the most inspiring examples of a sustainable energy community. It was good for investment, local community cohesion, employment and for the climate: from a baseline carbon footprint of approximately 11 tons of CO2 per head, residents now stand at minus 12 tonnes per person, compared with the Danish average of 6.2 tonnes and 10 tonnes per capita in the UK. But does this example represent a unique confluence of funding, political will, social structure and geography? Or, in fact, is Samsøs just one indication of huge leaps forward that can happen all over the world in very different circumstances, proving that the move to renewables globally is not only achievable within a short time frame – but could be done at the local, community level, with all its added benefits? A story of change in London, UK, which has had a very unstable policy environment for renewable energy, suggests the stage is set for community energy progress much more widely.
The non-profit energy cooperative Repowering London works in partnership with local authorities and community groups in some of London’s poorest areas to bring renewable energy within their reach. The organisation aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions, fight fuel poverty and generate training and employment opportunities for communities. Its model enables local communities to invest in ethical solar projects, often on social housing where individual households might not otherwise be able to afford the capital outlay. Profit from the sale of electricity to the grid is used to benefit the whole community and to give investors an annual return. It’s all about encouraging communities – rather than individuals – to engage with energy and reduce their collective CO2 emissions by generating decentralised low-carbon energy. Its projects are run democratically using Community Benefit Societies – a type of co-operative – to ensure that every voice is heard. Communities work together in one vote, one share co-operatives, which means they share both the energy savings and the idea that they are making a direct impact on global climate change.
Started in 2011 by a group of volunteers in South London, Repowering London is well known for solar rooftop systems on tower blocks. The group’s first success was in helping build Brixton Energy Solar in 2012, the UK’s first Community Energy project on a social housing site. Building on the success of that project, it then received a grant of £125,000 from the community business fund ‘Power to Change’ to expand community energy in Brixton. Learning from others and from their experience is a key part of Repowering London’s way of working, and their newest project Lambeth Community Solar, is a distillation of everything they have learnt to date, as well as being inspired by other projects in the sector. In 2019, the Lambeth project raised a community share offer of £137,000 in less than 60 days from a community of 187 investors. This will enable them to install 145kWp of solar panels on school roofs and create a £35,000 community fund to benefit Lambeth activities at local schools and in the surrounding community. Investors receive a 3% return on their investment while also supporting green energy, reducing carbon emissions and supporting the local community.
Repowering London’s key driver is a social works programme, which educates youth, adults and skilled engineers in the finance, IT, technical, legal and media/market elements of setting up and cooperatively owning a renewable energy power station. This means that skills stay in the community and can be used to benefit the whole community, as well as individuals and their families. Repowering London is now mentoring five other community energy groups across London to help them achieve their own goals.
There are community energy societies all over the UK – from the southern tip of Cornwall to the Shetlands Islands in the North of the UK. The first generation of these projects tended to be started by a group of people, perhaps in a small town, who saw the need for renewable energy in their neighbourhood, and were often large wind turbines. The second phase came with the introduction of the government’s ‘feed-in tariff’ – a scheme that provided payments for small scale energy generation at a rate that made the scheme successful for solar, medium-scale wind and hydro projects. People were willing to invest their capital in the equipment in view of the long-term payback in income from generating energy. This phase initially boosted investment from households, but the rate of return was reduced after a few years and the scheme closed to new entrants in 2019. The third phase will need to survive without government funding, which is feasible in some cases now that the costs of solar installation have drastically reduced and because renewables are no longer a niche energy source.
The Repowering London example is a typical illustration of what makes community energy projects successful. Research into their viability as a clear, specific measure to contribute to changing energy systems at scale found that successful projects had very clear visions of their goals and objectives shared by motivated individuals. This cohesion creates a level of enthusiasm that in turn generates opportunities to establish extensive networks to raise funds, provide technical knowledge, and accurately target local needs.
Putting energy generation and control into the hands of normal people brings other benefits. Like any community project, it tends to bring people together – and often people who might not already know each other, and who will be coming to the project for very different reasons. Some might be attracted to the social or community aspects, others to the engineering challenge, others because they like co-ops, are concerned about energy security, care more broadly about the environment, or just for the investment opportunity. In this way, such projects can see conservative MPs, retired engineers and environmental activists working together in ways that might not otherwise happen.
It also provides ordinary people with ownership of energy infrastructure – something that is still very unusual today and particularly in the UK, where privatisation has removed any sense of collaborative sharing in our energy system. As recent popular movements have shown, many people have shown they want more control over core services in their own area. Energy is just one part of this. The opportunity for direct investment is also significant, particularly at a time when traditional savings are not earning an income any more. When people realise they can get a better return from investing in a community energy scheme than putting their money in a bank, many are happy to do it. Returns will not be as high now subsidies are gone, but many schemes are still finding it works for them because of falling costs and new options such as batteries coming on line to make the infrastructure more efficient. In the case of Repowering London, by focusing on supplying solar systems for specific buildings such as schools or residential tower blocks, they provide a strong core around which to raise funds. Local people are already socially and emotionally invested; this is about encouraging them to trust their savings to the community too. A modest return and a worthy cause whose benefits can clearly be seen locally is a win-win for many people. Investments started from £100, enabling a reasonably broad spectrum of the community to take part.
A 2020 study analysing the potential of citizen-financed community renewable energy to drive Europe’s low-carbon energy transition identified citizen-led finance in renewable energy development as a potential tool to bridge the 179 billion euro investment gap between the amount invested so far by the EU, and the amount required to reach the 2030 climate targets. A recent survey from 16,235 participants across Europe indicates that €176 billion could be obtained from citizen-led finance in community-administered wind farm developments – enough to achieve a 32% renewable energy share in final energy consumption by 2030. But this may need new financial attitudes and products – easily accessible, risk-insured community investment options across Europe could unlock citizens’ social potential for investing in community renewable energy.
Research found that acquiring the resources to make their project happen was a key activity for groups and essential for their development. All the projects studied were proactive in gaining the skills, knowledge and resources they needed; most drawing on pre-existing knowledge and resources from within their community group. The diversity of the groups meant that expertise could come from within and beyond the community energy sector. Energy projects require ‘soft’ or ‘people’ skills, which are often as important as technical skills in overcoming challenges, building determination within the group and persistence in the face of setbacks, and growing their projects once the initial goal is reached. Similarly, in addition to interpersonal skills, initiatives need personal and emotional support to keep the project going in even the most challenging times. Here, in particular, face-to-face networking activities between initiatives can help, and knowing that other initiatives go through similar challenges can provide confidence.
A plethora of “low carbon communities” groups sprang up in towns across the UK from about 2005, largely in response to increasing concerns about climate change. Helping their communities to reduce carbon emissions more broadly, some groups saw developing and owning renewable energy systems as a way to both reduce emissions and provide funding for other activities. Installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on leased roofs was often the most straightforward route taken. In 2010 a feed-in tariff (FIT) system of support for small-scale renewable energy generation was introduced and falling prices of solar PV meant that these systems became financially viable, even without payment for the electricity by the host organisation. However, in October 2011, the government announced an unexpected cut to the FITs rate of around 50%, making many planned projects unviable. Many projects were saved by solar PV prices falling steadily until systems became viable if organisations hosting them paid for the electricity. Community energy grew, and in 2015 there were thought to be 150-200 community energy organisations, owning solar, wind, hydro and biomass boilers.
The steady growth in community energy was brought to a halt in 2015 when the newly elected conservative government announced drastic cuts to its support for small scale renewable energy. These took about a year to have an effect, but meant that the number of new community energy groups fell from about 30 a year to just one in 2017. New FITs applications ended completely in March 2019. Community energy continues to grow, mostly by acquiring existing generating capacity (particularly large solar farms, but also large scale wind), with some new installations by existing, established organisations. Community energy is working on new models, including incorporating battery storage with solar PV and electric vehicle charging, and investigating ways to sell directly to consumers – which is difficult in the UK regulatory environment.
The phrase “community energy” encompasses a huge range of grassroots innovations include both energy generation and conservation projects, including public space refurbishments (insulation, energy efficiency and on-site micro-generation); collective behaviour change programmes such as Carbon Rationing Action Groups, Transition Streets or Student Switch-Off; community-owned wind turbines like those on the Scottish Isles of Eigg or Gigha; and cooperatively-run small-scale energy systems, for example, Ouse Valley Energy Services Company (OVESCO) or Brighton Energy Cooperative.
Community energy is certainly taken more seriously today, perhaps thanks to pioneering examples like Samsø – and has led to policymakers in the UK, Germany and Denmark seeing local schemes as one method of moving effectively to renewables. In 2014, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) launched a national Community Energy Strategy, illustrating how this sector was significant enough to attract the attention of policymakers. Some suggest that policy support for community energy in recent years has grown because of the sector’s alleged ability to engage local populations in sustainable energy issues. This improves public receptivity to renewable energy installations, increases engagement in behaviour-change initiatives and helps to reduce carbon emissions. Thus, communities are seen as critical players in sustainable energy generation and energy saving efforts: However, a recent report highlighted how UK government efforts have “sometimes helped, but often hindered the transition to renewable energy.” This report concluded that other and better politics were needed that enabled a fruitful synergy between public authorities and civil engagement.
The idea of community energy is also gaining popularity with the public. Communities across the country have taken it upon themselves to organise and raise funds in order to generate their own electricity – often for community buildings such as schools and public halls, but also for housing. The ever-changing financial incentives for specific technologies have played a role in enabling this, but it is also fuelled by individuals and groups for a range of other reasons to do with carbon reduction, climate change or social justice. A recent poll by Co-op Energy found that a record high of 82% of respondents think the government should do more to help local communities generate their own energy, and 69% think the government should offer tax relief to those individuals who take the risk of investing in community energy. In London, the Solar Action Plan for London, launched by the mayor in 2018, included support for community energy projects as part of its aim is to install one gigawatt of generating power by 2030.
One of the major factors driving change is the ability of groups to learn from each other. The 2020 study analysing the potential of citizen-financed community renewable energy to drive Europe’s low-carbon energy transition found that UK community energy groups found they were generally small in scale (three quarters had 10 or fewer core members) and two-thirds had no paid staff. The development of organisations working across the sector, helping to network and share learning was shown to be important in its own right, and also because it fed into wider community work – not just focusing on energy production. Informal networks also greatly assisted in the spreading of ideas and contacts, as well as technical and practical help – often via email newsletters, talks and visits from other organisations such as Women’s Institute, Transition Towns and minority ethnic group organisations. A full two-thirds of the groups got their initial idea directly from hearing about or seeing other community energy groups.
Projects tend to learn from each other rather than from dedicated networking organisations, and while intermediary organisations are beginning to gather transferable lessons from projects, they cannot meet all the support needs of local groups. Despite the impressive growth of the sector in a time of inconsistent regulation and financial austerity, the study found that dedicated intermediary organisations struggled to keep up with changing policy priorities, and that shifting national or regional policy contexts undermined local efforts to build projects. On the positive side, self-organization is an ongoing process that can affect the reshaping of energy transitions. The rising numbers of community energy projects indicate relatively high levels of social acceptance, support, and positive value linked to renewable energy amongst the rest of the public. This might reasonably be expected to increase as a result of the re-localisation and strong self-help mentality fostered during the global pandemic.
Scaling up often happens organically, as small projects can lead on to wider work: for instance, the Barley Bridge Weir Hydro Scheme started off wanting to develop a community-owned energy generation project, but after conducting a public meeting decided to widen their aims, setting up various linked sustainability projects in the village around food, transport and energy. Their flexibility and willingness to shift priorities and visions in accordance with local feedback has enabled them to develop more successfully and engage more deeply with local populations. This in turn makes their survival more likely and contributes to their success – even if the concept of success is redefined over time.
According to Share Energy, an organisation that provides information to local communities on setting up energy projects, now that subsidies have gone, there is a need to scale up quickly:
In terms of financial viability, we might have to start thinking a bit bigger. Instead of community energy co-ops covering a village, maybe we should be thinking in terms of community energy covering counties or regions, to compete with the big energy companies and get really good prices, to attract a bigger customer base, and to mobilise an army of volunteers to help get solar panels on as many roofs as possible. Volunteers could find the roofs locally, and convince their owners to get panels on them. We have to be careful not to take away the local responsibility and the pleasure of doing something in the community, so the key thing is to try to find the balance between the scale we need, and the local involvement.