The recent launch of the government’s community energy strategy has sparked mixed feelings among community groups and industry experts. While on the surface it appears to offer valuable resources and monetary support to kick start community energy projects, the strategy has been greeted with some uncertainty and scepticism. And with many community energy schemes already running independently, could the government have missed the boat to get involved altogether?
The Community Energy Strategy is a result of government focus shifting from individual household installations to collaborative, community projects. The hopes are that projects like these can help renewable energy to become more feasible in helping whole communities benefit, as well as allowing greater opportunity for exploration into new ways of saving and generating energy.
The government scheme consists of 3 key benefits:
- The provision of a £10m urban community energy funds to provide monetary support for those wishing to start a community energy project in England. This will run alongside the £15m rural community energy fund which already available
A £100,000 prize for communities which use new approaches to saving and generating energy
A “one stop shop” information resource available to provide support for those developing a community energy project and help them overcome problems they may face
Despite the promise of financial support, doubts have emerged over how much success these aims will actually generate. Initial grants of £20,000 will be issued in order to assess the feasibility of the project, followed by loans of £130,000 to help support planning applications and put forward the business cases needed for the project to find further funding. This financial support is simply to give the project the potential to help itself move forward, but there is no guarantee that a successful project will emerge from it, and there are some questions as to how many projects will even make it past the feasibility stage.
Rachel Coxon of the Centre for Renewable Energy highlights the lack of detail given by the government at this point and has brought up a number of important questions about the scheme which currently remain unanswered: “How will the government ensure that less able communities are able to participate? How can the neighbourhood planning tools be used to best effect? Exactly what proportion of project ownership will commercial developers be asked to offer for local purchase?”
Coxon also dismisses the “competition” for the most intuitive project to win a £100,000 prize as “a lovely way to get ministerial press coverage, but less useful for establishing replicable, useful models of action!”
Some of the biggest critics of the announced scheme are members of independent community energy projects which have been established without any government aid. The recent announcements have left many people from these groups questioning if the government have done too little, too late. Kevin Frea, part of the already-established Halton Lune community hydro project calls the strategy a “massive disappointment” and questions “with the massive cuts at places like the environment agency and local planning offices, I wonder what the strategy will really be able to deliver in practice.”
His partner, Alison Cahn, who is also involved in the project says that while some guidance would have been helpful in overcoming the many obstacles faced throughout the project, the government proposals don’t appear to meet the needs of those organising community projects, focusing more on handing out money than offering genuine support. Instead, Cahn believes “the proposals introduce more complexity and so favour the big six energy generators over smaller community schemes.” She suggests that one way in which the government could make a difference is to “create a new breed of official who’s role is to help groups through the process”.
In theory, the Community Energy Strategy is a good opportunity for communities, who would normally struggle if trying to start such a project. Afterall, local communities are just small fish in the vast sea that is the energy industry. But with the scheme consisting of just vague promises for the time being, the jury is still out as to whether this initiative will sink or swim.
Image sourced: W.L Tarberttagscommunity energy strategycost and financeindependent energy