Challenges and opportunities for community energy
The launch of a new research project on Community Innovation for Sustainable Energy, led by SPRU at the University of Sussex and CSERGE, University of East Anglia, saw over 70 activists, academics, policymakers and social entrepreneurs gather to ask key questions about the challenges and opportunities for community energy.
Panel speakers at the public launch of the Community Innovation in Sustainable Energy project.
Recent years have witnessed a surge of interest and activity in community energy projects.
Local groups, increasingly assisted by wider networks with shared interests, have been coming together and developing smallscale sustainable energy projects. Many claims are being made about the potential of these projects. Initial studies and reviews of experience from exemplar projects are starting to understand the opportunities and challenges of community energy. Examples include the Ashden Awards Power to Our Neighbourhoods review, Urban Forum’s Community Power Empowers report, and a variety of academic studies.
The energy policy of the new government is also beginning to take shape, and a role for community energy remains within their vision. Community energy chimes with the new localism and Big Society agendas, but the realities of spending cuts are also part of the new context for community energy; as are the opportunities presented by the retention of feed-in-tariffs (though with uncertainty about levels of long-term support). We need to take stock of the community energy sector, and to consider what sort of research and support can help projects ﬂourish in these new contexts.
With this in mind, A Thousand Flowers Blooming? gathered together more than 70 community activists, academics and social entrepreneurs to hear a distinguished panel of 5 expert speakers at UEA London on December 9th, 2010. The speakers (shown left to right above) were:
- Gordon Walker (Lancaster University);
- Simon Roberts (Centre for Sustainable Energy);
- Chris Church (Low Carbon Communities Network);
- Jim Watson (chair);
- Mark Shearer (Project Dirt);
- Patrick Allcorn (UK government Department for Energy and Climate Change).
Through brief introductory remarks, and a ‘question time’ format taking questions from the ﬂoor, they discussed two critical questions at the heart of the community energy movement:
- What are the big challenges and opportunities for community energy?
- How can community energy projects make an effective contribution to broader processes of change in our energy systems?
Community energy: key discussion points
Diversity: strength or weakness?
The community energy sector is marked by enormous diversity in terms of the aims and objectives of projects, management and ownership structures, scale, technologies, levels of community participation etc. On the one hand, this diversity is an enormous strength, ensuring projects are locally appropriate and respond to local issues and needs. On the other hand, it does not ﬁt well with the efforts of policy makers and funders to standardise rules and procedures, nor does it make the replication of success stories easy.
The ‘retired engineer’ factor: despite the efforts of policy makers to generate structures that support the development of community energy, many successful projects rely on the unique skill-sets of particular individuals. In particular, retired engineers, accountants, lawyers and community workers are often crucial to getting projects off the ground and engaging local people. How can such unique conditions be replicated elsewhere?
From grants to incentives: under the new Coalition Government, the funding structure has shifted away from grants and pilot projects, towards incentives such as Feed in Tariffs and the Renewable Heat Incentive. The aim is to create a broad enabling framework giving every community the opportunity to develop their own energy projects, but this represents a unique challenge to the community energy sector to respond to a new funding landscape.
Support, learning and networking
Despite the heroic efforts of many community activists to get projects off the ground, the successful growth of community energy will demand wider support. How can projects learn key lessons from one another? How can they more extensively engage with the rest of society, with policy makers and even with big business?
Coping with risk
A key challenge for start-up projects is winning funding at the outset, when it is most needed yet when there is greatest uncertainty and risk. How can this risk be distributed across projects? Are development risk capital funds an important solution?
Proving their worth: for all the rhetoric around best practice case studies there is, as yet, very little robust and concrete evidence on the contribution community energy projects can make to creating a secure, low-carbon energy system. If wider support is to be forthcoming, there is a pressing need for the community energy sector to demonstrate its value.
Overall, the evening celebrated the enormous creativity, diversity and innovation of community energy projects, but reﬂected realistically that such groups face enormous technical, ﬁnancial, legal and social challenges that cannot always be addressed alone.
Understanding and working to overcome these issues is at the heart of the Community Innovations in Sustainable Energy research project.
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This article was originally published as an event briefing, available to download from the Community Innovations in Sustainable Energy website.
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