28 February 2018
One of Regen’s first initiatives to support the developing community energy sector, was to work with partners to set up Communities for Renewables CIC (CfR), to provide specialist expertise to support the development of community owned larger scale (MW) renewable energy projects.
At the end of 2017 CfR has delivered over 30 MW of community owned renewable generation, which will provide £13 million of support to local communities over the lifetime of the projects. Those funds are starting to flow, with Ferry Farm Community Solar in West Sussex making its first grant this January of £20,000 to Selseyworks, a local social enterprise aiming to address fuel poverty. These projects have been made possible by harnessing the potential of crowd funded investment, combined with social investment funds.
When Regen changed our strategy to start working to support community energy groups I recall many debates with those who doubted that the sector would ever develop large scale projects. CfR’s impressive achievements delivering large scale community owned renewable energy projects, that benefit local people and the fuel poor shows how wrong that view was, and there are lots of other inspiring examples. Our community energy lead, Jodie Giles, is currently working on a report on the achievements of community energy groups in Devon that Regen and Devon Country Council have supported.
I believe we now have an opportunity to build on the achievements of CfR and the community energy sector, as we shift to a smart and flexible energy system. Seismic shifts in technology including low cost renewables, battery storage and electric vehicles give us the opportunity to rethink the energy system from the bottom up. However, I simply don’t believe we will achieve a change of the scale of transforming our energy system without bringing people along with us. In short, we should be working for a democratic as well as decarbonised energy system.
What could that democratic system look like? Community ownership of energy assets will be central. Another key step is to enable local communities to use the power they generate locally and in local energy markets. Ferry Farm Community Solar, for example, generates the equivalent of the annual demand of 1,300 homes but enabling local people in West Sussex to use this power is very difficult under the current rules. With the right support local communities could also play a role in shifting when they use energy, to reduce the peak demands that drive the need for more generation and more infrastructure to move it around.
Regen recently published a paper looking some of these local energy options: Local Supply: Options for selling your energy locally (3rd edition) that shows there are things we can do now, but we need changes in the rules of energy supply and the way the electricity network is charged for, to really enable and encourage local energy. We are also involved in several trials and running events with Western Power Distribution for community and local organisations on how a flexible energy system can work.
As with the early days of community energy projects, there are many that think smart and flexible energy is too complex for communities. The achievements of CfR should make them think again. With the right policies and support, communities can play a leading role in transforming our energy system.
Author: Merlin Hyman