Importance of Community Energy in the Growth of UK’s Clean Energy

Due to limited subsidy and local opposition to the development, the United Kingdom renewables industry is currently facing an indeterminate future. However, one sector is actually increasing strength in community projects.

Let us focus on various developments in the clean energy industry. Over the previous year, there has been one trend that has been inevitable – the rise of community energy.

It seems nearly all other renewable energy projects under development in the United Kingdom today has some form of community involvement, whether that be the community fund established by developers or share offers enabling residents to own their slice of the clean energy pie.

Only today there came great news that the UK’s first solar farm financed by the council-backed solar bonds has finally started generating electricity.

The 5-MW Swindon Community Solar Farm was partly financed through 1.8M worth of the council solar bonds, alongside 3M of investment from the Swindon Borough Council.

Some 65% of the farm’s profits will be utilized to fund various local community initiatives, with the remaining 35% going to the council.

In fact, the peer-to-peer lending platform that launched the bonds in collaboration with the Swindon Council has already mentioned it has been approached by several other local authorities looking to follow the same model.

Meanwhile, the residents of the remote village in the Ashcombe, Devon now have full access to high-speed internet due to the community benefit payments from the neighboring 6.5-MW Sawmills solar farm that was completed the previous year.

A yearly community funding, offered by the Sawmills developers Solstice Renewables and the Belltown Power, has also been utilized to install numerous solar panels on the roof of a local school as well as funding educational resources on the topics of renewable energy and climate change.

Community projects are not rising in importance for the solar industry only. The previous month, work started at the first community-led urban hydro scheme of Scotland, This project will channel its profits into the community fund to support local environmental and social initiatives, such as initiatives to boost the local riverside.

Meanwhile, a number of community groups are trying to take ownership of the energy market, dictating the terms of production as well as supply.

For instance, Edinburgh residents may be poised to benefit largely from the inexpensive energy bills after a modern green energy scheme was awarded over 800,000 in funding from the Scottish government today.

The Tower Power project will utilize the cash to fund a community project known as 20 More that aims to secure many residents of the Dumbidykes housing estate in the Edinburgh a better deal on their energy through collective purchasing agreements.

And earlier this year, Mongoose did announce its plans to establish a supply business by the end of the year. The company’s chief executive Jan-Willem Bode wrote mentioned that they believe the model – one where the supply business is mainly owned by the community energy groups – will be the first for the UK on this scale.

He also added that the majority of the company’s profits would go back into the communities, and they believe this will actually transform the nature of energy ownership in the UK.

All these developments confirm that the clean energy industry has grasped the benefits of winning community buy-in for the local renewables projects.

According to the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, this a key lesson the government did not learn quickly for the onshore wind. At a panel debate in London last week, he said he feel in retrospect they underestimated the extent to which they required to get community buy-in around renewable energy, especially wind turbines.

He also added that they wish that earlier on they had done more to offer community benefit. He confirmed that there are many projects in his constituency where there’s community benefit and it completely changes the local perception about the onshore wind since it is offering a new village hall or there is some other community benefit.

It may be very late for the onshore wind developers – specifically in light of the transformations in the planning system making new developments extremely tricky to win approval for – but some other renewables operators should consider the rise of community energy as an actual opportunity for the industry.

After an undeniably rocky 18 months, having citizens power behind the clean energy may not only offer a valuable source of the project funding but shield the industry from more targeted political attacks.