Friday, 4 October 2013

Advocating for Community Renewables, a key component in community-led economic regeneration

by Ian Bright, TRESOC MD

It’s almost 6 years since TRESOC was founded as an Industrial and Provident Society for the profitable generation of renewable energy, by and for the residents of Totnes and the surrounding parishes.  We’ve built up a great team of Directors, Admin Manager, Intern and volunteers, with the professional skills to develop a range of renewable energy projects in community ownership.  We’ve raised £175,000 of share capital from our 500 members for project development and investment and we’re all aware that we’re working with money entrusted to us by our friends & neighbours in the local community.

One of the major difficulties we’ve experienced, along with other community energy groups, is dealing with legislation tailored for the existing electricity generation and distribution network, owned and controlled by a small number of large corporations.  So alongside keeping our members, supporters and the wider public informed of what we’re doing, it’s also important to engage with Government as they seek views on how to encourage growth in the community renewables economy.

As Managing Director of TRESOC I’ve been called to represent TRESOC and the community renewables sector at a number of workshops and events over the past year and I’d like to share some of this with you.  If your boredom threshold is not too low, please read on!

The role and context for community renewables

Communities have an important role to play in increasing the supply of renewable electricity, heat and transport energy to meet 15% of UK energy demand by 2020.   It’s a huge increase over current levels of renewable energy supply and requires a very different pattern of energy generation from large centralised fossil fuel and nuclear plant. 

Realisation of this level of renewable energy production involves a variety of technologies with large numbers of small scale power generation plant, widely distributed in every city, town, village and parish.

Local community ownership, in whole or in partnership, is a major factor influencing acceptability of all forms of renewable energy.  It’s a very different experience to look at a wind turbine if it is putting money in your pocket, rather than simply adding to the profits of a large corporation.  All over the country, people of all ages and walks of life are putting in time, expertise and their money to form community energy organisations, taking responsibility for local renewable energy production. The sector has grown from 4.1 MW in 2003 to 58.9 MW capacity in 2013, a growth rate 3 times faster than total UK renewables capacity over the same period.

I’m glad to report that we are now beginning to see recognition and encouragement for this grass roots activity. The Coalition Agreement has always included a commitment to encourage community owned energy schemes, and Government is now actively seeking consultation with the community renewables sector as the Community Energy Strategy is prepared for publication later this year.

Lobbying activities

Before starting on this account, I would like to first reassure our members that TRESOC funds are not used for lobbying activities.    Co-operatives UK has paid TRESOC for my attendance at two of these events.  Sometimes my travel expenses are reimbursed by the meeting organisers and sometimes they’re not.

TRESOC, like most communities, has found that an industrial and provident society (IPS) offers the best legal structure to develop community owned renewables.  Co-operatives UK is the trade body for the IPS sector and I’ve been working closely with them in their lobbying efforts.

In November 2012, I was asked to give a presentation on TRESOC and the Totnes Community Wind Farm at the launch of the Co-operatives UK Report on Community Energy and the Energy Bill.  It was a positive event; most encouraging to hear first-hand accounts of community energy projects from the Brixton to the Scottish Highlands.  The report highlighted the work still to be done in shaping legislation in the Energy Bill to ensure ongoing growth in the community energy sector.

I’m glad to say that a key Co-operatives UK recommendation in the report was recognised in July when the Government tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill to double the size of community renewable energy projects able to access Feed-in Tariffs to 10MW.

This means projects between 5MW and 10MW, which captures most larger community owned schemes, will be able to fund their schemes through the simple method of a fixed Feed-in Tariff, rather than participating in the new ‘contracts for difference’ regime, a complex scheme designed for large commercial developers.

Later in November I was invited to represent the community renewables sector at a Public Policy Exchange Symposium Countdown to the 2020 Sustainability Target: Unlocking the Power of Renewable Energy in Every Local Area.  I gave a 20 minute presentation on TRESOC and then took part in a roundtable discussion with a variety of interests represented; including wind farm developers, consultants, community groups, local authorities and a union representative speaking on behalf of offshore wind farm workers.  DECC officials took part and took notes on engaging with communities and investors to raise awareness of the benefits of renewable energy – much more work to be done in this field!

Then back to London in April for a Dept. of Energy and Climate Change Workshop on Access to Market for Independent Generators, looking at the problems faced by independent renewable generators when securing finance and selling their power, and how the implementation of Government’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR) might address some of the issues we face.  Discussion focused on the impact that EMR – and the ‘Contract for Difference’ – might have on reducing the risks faced by developers, the size of the risks that remain and the impact of this on the ability to raise finance.

One of the key issues for the few community energy representatives present was the sheer complexity of the proposed Contract for Difference legislation and the huge gap between the resources of large developers and community groups to tackle it.  “Legislation Lite” was mentioned as a route to market for small scale community generators but no firm proposals have been put forward – yet!

More recently, I took part in the Guardian Roundtable Debate on the Potential of Community Energy to Power the UK.  The debate was chaired under Chatham House Rules whereby everybody can say what they like, no-one is wrong and the transcript of the debate reports only what was said, not who said it!  The transcript, with list of participants, was published in the Guardian on 13th September.  It was refreshing to take part in such an open forum and encouraging to see a special adviser to Energy Minister Greg Barker MP at the table, confirming Government interest in supporting growth in the community owned renewable energy economy.

On following day I was at an Ofgem Workshop on Community Energy, which took the form of presentations from Ofgem and grid operators on what has been done so far, and what is proposed, to allow small scale community energy practitioners access to the grid.  

The view from the floor, understandably, was that it would have been good to have had a representative of the community renewables sector speaking from the platform.  These events often seem to have more community renewables experts than practitioners, with the latter obviously being too busy struggling to get projects off the starting blocks! 

Nevertheless, it was a very good and welcome start to what will prove to be a long journey for Ofgem and the industry in developing legislation to allow easy access to the grid for community projects.  There was a presentation on “legislation lite” for community renewables but, again, no firm proposals as yet!

The most encouraging meeting so far came when I was privileged to attend the Launch Event of the ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”  introduced by Greg Barker MP in the Houses of Parliament on 10th September.

The Report recognises TRESOC activities in the Section on Central Barriers to Growth of Community Energy, as follows:

"A recent example in support of the effect of local authority attitudes and levels of awareness concerns the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) wind farm. The Totnes Community Wind Farm, a project that Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future described as 'one of the most well-designed and well-supported we’ve ever seen,' was denied planning permission early in 2013. The opinion of TRESOC was that 'Local planning authorities don’t yet have the tools to balance parochial concerns against national strategic objectives for deployment of renewable energy.'"

This suggests that greater information and training for decision makers – both planners and councillors – would be beneficial.

Apart from recognising TRESOC’s efforts, the report gives a good overview of the community renewables sector and points to the potential for growth.  The report says that community renewables could grow from current levels of less than 1% of on shore renewables capacity now, to 10% by 2027 

“if certain barriers are dissolved and the appropriate policy framework put in place.”

Partnership working with developers, as enshrined in the Rules of TRESOC, is highlighted as a way forward.  The key role of local authorities in bringing all this to fruition is also recognised with a number of welcome recommendations for partnership working with community groups.  The report is well worth a read, and its recommendations will help shape the Community Energy Strategy, due later this year.

I’m detailed for one more train journey to London on 17th October to attend a Community Energy Planning and Regulation Summit with Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change.  The summit will look at ways to remove obstacles to community energy and I feel privileged to have been invited to attend.  DECC have done a great job over the years in developing a coherent renewable energy strategy to enable the UK to meet its international commitments to source 15% of our energy from renewables by 2020.

And finally, the community renewables sector gets to have its say at the first UK Community Energy Conference  I’m looking forward to this one very much.  It is a struggle for every community renewables group to tackle the hurdles of legislation, planning, law, finance, and engineering, without the resources of major developers.  DEFRA estimates that only one in three community energy projects makes it to completion, so it’s always inspiring to hear first-hand accounts of success against the odds.  And to share experiences, renew old friendships and make new ones in the rapidly growing community renewables sector.

Conclusions and next steps

The main driver for all of this lobbying activity is the realisation that, if the potential of community renewables is to be fully realised, it’s vital that the sector has a voice in Government circles as the fine tuning of legislation in the Energy Bill takes place.  It’s a commonly held view that community renewables are happening despite, rather than because of Government.  Nevertheless, Government is listening and we need to make ourselves heard, now and into the future.  Co-operatives UK is taking a lead role as the trade body for co-operatives and industrial and provident societies delivering community renewable energy.  Their resources are tiny in comparison to the lobbying power of the big six power generators and Government should make allowance for this in their decision making processes if they are serious about continuing growth in the community renewables sector.

The elephant in the room here is the impact of Local Government on the cost, risk and timetable for delivery of community owned renewable energy projects. The Community Renewables Economy Report recognises this and proposes a number of measures for local authorities to engage with the sector, including “pathfinder” local authorities to develop models of co-operation with community groups.  This proposal is heartily welcomed by TRESOC and we believe this would be a great example of the Prime Minister’s “Big Society” concept in action.   

There are considerable opportunities for community organisations to facilitate local community investment in renewable energy projects, generating income on Council owned assets.  There is much work to be done here but the prize is worth the effort. And it has to be recognised that while DECC is doing a great job in promoting community renewables, the Department for Communities and Local Government needs to do more than pay lip service to the UK renewable energy agenda.

While all this is interesting (to me at least!) and necessary, it is challenging for us to justify spending time on lobbying, with a diverse portfolio of renewable energy projects in development.  TRESOC’s success depends on bringing these projects to fruition, which is where the efforts of the TRESOC team are now keenly focussed. We will have more news of projects for you in the very near future.

And finally, on behalf of the whole TRESOC team, I would like to say a big thank you to our members and supporters for all your recent messages of support and encouragement.  It makes it worthwhile to keep pushing the ball uphill!

The Energy Bill and its Impact on Community Energy  

Guardian Roundtable Debate on Community Energy

ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”