A new community approach to renewables

I spend a lot of time engaging with the media and communities on the role of renewable energy in the future.
Britain has excellent renewable energy resources in the sun, wind, waves and tides which makes it well placed to put renewable energy at the heart of the future of our energy supplies. We also have the expertise to play a leading role in developing the technology to harness the clean sustainable energy.

My experience is that people are generally convinced that renewable energy should and will play a major role in the future of our energy. Or to put in another way, most people would rather rely on British wind than Russian gas for their electricity supplies.

This personal experience is borne out in the polls. In July 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Public Attitudes Tracker found 79 percent of people supported renewable energy.

Increasingly people also see the economic opportunities from being at the forefront of the renewable energy industry. At a time of austerity and a stagnant economy the booming renewable energy sector is a rare bright spot. In the south west of England I find many people I talk to now have friends and family amongst the ten thousand people employed in the sector in the region. 

However, when individual wind energy schemes come forward they often face significant opposition from some local people and planning permission can turn into a long and bitter struggle which does little good for anyone.

In my view this contrast between general support and opposition to specific schemes is in large part due to fact that local communities often do not feel connected to, or benefit sufficiently from, renewable energy developments.

I think we need a new model of developing wind and other renewable energy where communities play a much greater role. We know this is possible, in Germany an estimated 15 percent of all renewable electricity generation capacity is owned by communities, some 5GW of capacity and 600 energy cooperatives. I have no doubt that it feels different to have a view of wind turbines if you have a stake in and benefit from them. Debates about renewable energy developments are much rarer in Germany.

In fact we don’t need to look so far afield for examples, we already have many inspiring examples of what can be achieved here in the UK. 

A number of developers are putting considerable effort into effective community engagement and providing local benefits. A few months back I spent a cold and rainy morning at the UK’s first wind farm at Delabole in Cornwall helping Good Energy launch their local tariff offering discounted energy for residents living near the turbines. REG wind energy’s replacement of old turbines with modern designs at St Breock, also in Cornwall, was done in close consultation with the local Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network. The scheme had few complaints and was described by the chair of the planning committee as a model approach.

Communities for Renewables CIC is a specialist social enterprise renewable energy developer that Regen has helped found. CfR CIC works with local communities to help them realise their aspirations for significant renewable energy developments. Projects are developed in partnership with a local community providing a much greater level of control and financial benefit to those communities.

Some community groups are partnering with commercial developers to bring forward schemes jointly. In Totnes in Devon, for example, Totnes Renewable Energy Society is partnering with Infinergy to develop the Totnes Community Wind Farm.

In some cases communities are themselves becoming developers. Bath and West Community Energy, for example, held a very successful local share issue and have deployed solar panels across schools and other public buildings around Bath. They have extensive plans to develop other technologies including wind and hydro.

So how can we develop this community energy movement to become a key part of the way renewable energy is developed in the future? 

The key in my view is to support the development of community energy groups which are able to think about the future of energy in their communities, build consensus and engage effectively with developers and local authorities.

What is clear is more support is needed from government to enable community energy groups to develop. This should build on what has already been achieved.

Regen SW, Communities for Renewables CIC and our partners successfully lobbied the Treasury to protect tax incentives for community energy investments. A more coherent strategy would include encouraging local authorities to provide support, providing sources of social finance that local energy groups can access, providing support for feasibility studies on potential projects and initiatives to enable networking and sharing of experiences.

I am currently sitting on a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) stakeholder advisory group on community benefit and wind energy which has been seeking evidence on how developers can work more effectively with communities. Some of the ideas emerging from this work include new guidance to developers and a register of community benefit schemes so that they can be learnt from. The output from this exercise is likely to emerge in the spring.

DECC is also promising a broader community energy strategy looking across energy efficiency and all renewable energy technologies. 

Regen SW runs the Communities for Renewables Community Support Programme which helps communities to develop their strategies and progress renewable energy projects in their area. A key part of this is a Community Energy Group Network that meets to discuss the issues around community energy and share learning. Alongside that, we campaign on issues that affect community energy and work to raise awareness of the opportunities through the local and regional media. Our work in this area is supported by the EU Interreg IVb programme, the Academy of Champions for Energy (Ace).

Regen is shortly running our Renewable Energy Marketplace exhibition which takes place on 19 March at Westpoint which will showcase the best of renewable energy. As part of this major event we will have a community zone and be running training sessions for communities who want to understand community energy and how to establish a local group.

Community energy is an idea whose time has come. With the right strategy from government, support from expert organisations like Regen and, most importantly, the passion and commitment of local people to the future of their local communities a new approach to renewable energy can emerge. 

Merlin Hyman, Chief Executive, Regen SW.

For more on Regen SW see www.regensw.co.uk.

For details of Renewable Energy Marketplace go to www.renewableenergymarketplace.co.uk