Despite the challenges that have come its way over the past few years, the community energy sector is more determined than ever to play a key role in our energy system. The transition from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) to Distribution System Operators (DSOs) is seen by communities as a golden opportunity to make their voice heard and shape radical changes in how the whole system is run. DNOs are also showing their commitment to listen to community groups and local energy stakeholders to find out what they want to see in our future energy system.

Yet it can often seem to local energy stakeholders that the current system is weighted heavily towards larger incumbent players, with communities sometimes held back by network charging, grid constraints and lacking the in-house capacity enjoyed by bigger companies to make their projects viable at the scale they envisage.

In the transition to DSO, possibly the biggest change undergone by the network since privatisation, lies the opportunity to level the playing field and remove some of the obstacles faced by communities. The industry-led Open Networks Project is providing some great opportunities for local energy players to be involved in shaping the future of the energy system in the UK. Most recently, the project’s Future Worlds consultation asked for feedback on five potential scenarios for a future smart grid in the UK – the responses will be shared in due course.

As we saw at the Community Energy Innovation event in Edinburgh we ran recently with the Energy Networks Association, community energy is a broad church and communities involved have a variety of motivations. Climate change, social justice, community empowerment, local resilience and tackling fuel poverty are all often cited goals at our community events, and some groups simply see community energy as a means to an end for providing for their community.

If we want to make our energy system more democratic, then communities need to be at the heart of that system. The whole-place or ‘local ecosystem’ approach that communities naturally adopt ought to be translated into a whole-system or ‘energy ecosystem’ approach when looking at our future network. An example of this is recognising the value of matching supply and demand locally on the public network, rather than the current system which favours behind the meter and private wire solutions. Communities have the potential to be key in coordinating matching supply and demand at a local level, and the benefits of this to the network should be considered in Ofgem’s network charging review.

As DNOs transition to DSOs, a local ecosystem approach would see the procurement of flexibility include social and environmental considerations. This would support more low carbon generation, engage people in the energy transition and help retain value for a local area. Simple flexibility service platforms and longer-term contracts coordinated between DSOs and the System Operator (ESO) would enable smaller players to enter these emerging markets and access revenue streams with fewer barriers.

Local and community energy stakeholders believe that decarbonisation should be at the centre of the DSO transition, assessing the future energy system against legally binding carbon targets factors and long-term benefits to the whole system. The opportunity to make our energy ecosystem fit for the future is here, communities’ voices are an important part of that transformation.

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