Laurie Duncan asseses how local authorities have promoted community energy in their areas. This is the second instalment of the Young Fabians Environment Network’s blog series, Councils and the Climate Crisis: Taking Action Locally.
Why do some areas of the UK have thriving community energy sectors, while others do not? Bristol, a city of almost half a million people, has several community groups, including some which employ several members of staff. In contrast, Liverpool, with a similar size, demographic, and geography, currently has no active groups, after several failed attempts throughout the 2010s. A key factor in areas succeeding to make their vision for community energy a reality has been support from their local authorities. This blog will explore some of the options available for councils to get involved.
Community energy broadly refers to local communities taking ownership of their local energy system. This can lead to a range of benefits – environmental (reducing carbon emissions or improving air quality), social (alleviating fuel poverty), and economic (encouraging local investment and supporting jobs).
The vast majority of community energy schemes were made viable by the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) introduced by the last Labour government, which paid a fixed price for every unit of renewable electricity generated. The FiT payments were cut several times by the coalition and Conservative governments, eventually closing the scheme to new installations in 2020. As a result, community energy groups have had to diversify their projects to continue developing and serving their local areas. Here are five ways that local authorities have enabled this shift:
Direct financial support. Funding for feasibility studies, project development, and planning has been made available by Bristol City Council and the Mayor of London. So far, almost £250,000 of grants have been issued in Bristol, and more than £1m has been invested in 86 London projects over four years.
After a decade of austerity, most local authorities will not be able to afford a community energy fund despite all the potential benefits. Instead, others like Plymouth and Swansea Councils have offered low-interest loans to help groups top-up their capital raised through community shares to install rooftop solar panels.
Assets. Many council-owned buildings will be suitable for rooftop solar, as Oxford Low Carbon Hub demonstrated with their City and County Councils. Some may be ideal for demonstrating low carbon heating technologies, as Brighton and Hove Energy Services Co-op have done with public buildings in their area.
Partnership with the local authority. With access to more funding opportunities, local authorities can be valuable partners for community energy groups. The Low Carbon Hub secured European funding to develop a range of projects thanks to their partnership with Oxford City Council, without whom they would not have been elligble. The benefits of partnership go both ways; Bath & North East Somerset Council worked with Bath & West Community Energy as their work demonstrated investment producing co-benefits beyond reducing carbon emissions, including supporting local jobs.
Partnership-building by the local authority. Similar to the last point, but here the local authority’s role is to bring together local organisations with common goals. This could be the formation of a community energy group itself, as Plymouth City Council did in 2013. It could also involve convening several local groups to encourage collaboration, share experience, and reduce duplicated work. Liverpool City Region wrote a report in 2017 on how LEPs can best contribute to local energy projects, including working with Local Net Zero Hubs and co-ordinating joint ventures with public, private and community investment.
Procedure and planning. Manchester City Council have introduced social and environmental weightings on all procurement decisions, meaning that a community group offering a renewable energy supply for council buildings will have their community benefits recognised in the decision-making process.
Parish councils also have a role to play in enabling community energy. Since 2015, the government has required Neighbourhood Plans (the parish equivalent of a Local Plan for locating new developments) to allocate areas suitable for wind turbines in order to gain approval. This has still proved to be a barrier; since this policy change, only 7.5MW of onshore wind has been installed in England, compared to 80MW in Scotland under a different planning system.
The Coalition Government published a Community Energy Strategy in 2014, setting out a vision for significant growth in the sector. This was abandoned after the Conservatives formed a majority government in 2015, preferring to take a more market-based approach. Emissions in the energy sector have been cut, but taking this approach for all policy risks leaving people behind in the transition. Bottom-up approaches, where local policy is co-designed by local people and local government, ensures that citizens’ concerns can be raised and addressed early on in the process, and policy can easily be adapted to suit the individual needs of a place.
The Climate Change Committee have estimated more than a third of all emissions in the UK can be influenced by local authorities. However, only 2-5% comes directly from the council operations. If local authorities are going to tackle climate change, they will have to make greater use of their ‘soft’ powers of brokering partnerships and place-making. Community energy groups are ideal partners for this work, with a focus on citizens not customers. The community energy sector is at a crossroads with the end of the Feed-in Tariff; local authorities have an opportunity to support them and collaborate to continue to enjoy the many co-benefits they have brought to communities over the last ten years.
Laurie Duncan is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, researching energy policy in local and combined authorities. He is interested in how devolution can enable place-based approaches to achieving net zero. He is Chair of Community Energy Birmingham.