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  • Writer's pictureWiltshire Wildlife

Community energy could be a catalyst for change, given the right backing

The community opportunity

As Worthy Farm in neighbouring Somerset falls quiet again after another epic Glastonbury festival, I’m left with an echo of the words of eco-royalty Greta Thunberg who addressed the masses from the Pyramid Stage at the weekend. She told crowds that ‘this {climate} crisis will continue to get worse… until we prioritise people and planet over profits and greed’. Sadly, she is of course right.

With the climate crisis worsening and the cost-of-living crisis beginning to bite for us all, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the huge potential the sector in which I operate has to make a real difference to people and planet alike. I was particularly impressed by the fantastic roster of events taking place during Community Energy England’s (CEE) recent Community Energy Fortnight which shone a light on some of the excellent work already being done. Ms Thunberg called for ‘fundamental changes to our societies’ and ‘immediate drastic emissions reductions’, both of which can be achieved to varying degrees through effective community energy initiatives.

What is community energy?

For those of you who aren’t already familiar with the concept of community energy, let me summarise - community energy organisations generate sustainable energy backed by and for the benefit of local communities. Groups like WWCE seek to initiate a shift in mindsets, promoting a reduction in carbon emissions and accelerating the decentralisation of the energy system. We do this by working closely with local people like you, building the trust and participation needed to ensure vital renewable energy projects receive the support they require to be brought to fruition. Community energy projects tend to attract more community support and buy in – quite literally - than commercial projects because the investors are local. These projects could involve electricity generation, energy storage, energy efficiency, heat generation, or low carbon transport.

The state of the sector

It is a sector that is growing, albeit at a slower rate than we’d hope over recent years. According to CEE’s State of the Sector report, the community energy industry engaged with over 200,000 people across the UK during 2021. 18 new organisations were founded, the highest number over the past five years, taking the total to 495. As a collective, ‘we’ installed 7.5MW of new renewable energy capacity and our combined energy efficiency interventions saved the nation an impressive £3.35 million on its energy bills.

In addition to these glittering energy credentials, community organisations like WWCE are also beneficial for local economies and community groups. An average of 70% of community energy organisational expenditure was spent locally, amounting to just under £15m being directly used to support local economies, while community benefit funds like the one we operate distributed £1.35m to worthwhile initiatives. A number of not-for-profit community energy groups have in more recent times been set up with the with express purpose of using surplus income to invest in energy efficiency and fuel poverty support.

Indeed, WWCE’s own Community Fund has been able to utilise surplus funds to support a host of programmes across the South West, ranging from Wiltshire Scrapstore, Friends of Biss Meadows, and Seeds 4 Success, to Sustainable Warminster, and SPLASH - Youth Action Wiltshire to name just a few.

Battling on

Those of us already directly involved with community energy programmes remain as determined as ever to achieve our full potential, but the overall outlook for community energy development is a challenging one in light of reduced support mechanisms and entrenched regulatory barriers. Although mentioned in both the Energy White Paper and Net Zero Strategy, no concrete plan for driving community energy was offered and no real support provided, despite recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee for exactly that. If anything, things have taken a step back. In England for example, the Rural Community Energy Fund came to an end in March with no formal replacement. Instead, government advises we ‘work closely with local authorities’ to access national growth funds.

It's unlikely that this approach will yield results unless local authorities are able to offer greater assistance in the form of more meaningful cooperation and more supportive planning policies. In the absence of subsidies, there is a need to develop projects at scale to ensure financially viability, so it is vital that authorities are on board with what it is we are trying to achieve and offer stimulus to get us there. Support for a right to local supply is gaining momentum and I hope that legislation to remove the cost and complexity of developing local supply arrangements may yet materialise.

In the meantime, and assuming HMG continues to ignore all of the recommendations set out in WPI Economics’ 2020 paper, the community energy sector will no doubt continue to demonstrate its adaptability and determination. However, by simply providing greater certainty and positive reinforcement of its rhetoric, the government could instigate huge investment in renewables which would in turn allow us to expand our offering and deliver far reaching social, economic, and environmental benefits to communities. In doing so, we could accelerate the national drive toward net zero by saving as much as 2.5 million tonnes of carbon by 2030, giving Greta at least one reason to be cheerful…

Julian Barlow is Chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

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