Community Energy Strategy: Opportunities and Strategies

Our chair Pete Capener is a member of the ministerial Community Energy Contact Group that has been advising DECC during the the development of their recently published Community Energy Strategy. He was also author of the report modelling potential community renewable electricity sector growth to 2020, referenced in the strategy and published by DECC at the same time.

In this blog – first published on the DECC website – he gives us his thoughts on the process and where it may lead.

So here we are, the first ever Community Energy Strategy! It’s been nearly two years in gestation, moving between teams within DECC gathering momentum and political support.

Is it worth the wait? I’ll certainly be welcoming it.

For the first time we have community energy being recognised in a substantive way with an appropriate focus on increasing community ownership and leadership. There will be a new Community Energy Unit established within DECC, responsible for implementing the strategy and an implementation plan developed with specific milestones and responsibilities identified. All of which should make it harder for this to be a one-day wonder.

Overall the process of being involved alongside DECC officials has been a positive one. Whilst not getting everything we wanted, I’ve not been involved in Government policy work where there has been such a commitment to open dialogue.

In terms of content, the strategy does a very good job of acknowledging the issues faced by communities and the range of opportunities for moving forward. And there are some very welcome commitments like the focus on urban as well as rural ‘at risk’ finance for community renewables projects; action to get the Green Investment Bank more involved; increasing the Feed-In Tariff threshold from 5 to 10MW; funding for peer mentoring and capacity building support; and increased funding for Green Deal Communities.

There are some tantalizing glimpses of things that could and should be developed further in the future, such as:

  • community approaches to energy supply as well as generation
  • the expansion of shared ownership schemes with commercial developers
  • the value of neighbourhood planning
  • recognition of the need to address state aid issues
  • an emerging focus on smart grids and communities and,
  • the opportunity for community engagement with the Zero Carbon Home ‘Allowable Solutions’ framework as a source of future finance.

But as in any strategy, not everything is there yet. Whilst there are some good initiatives, it would have been nice to see stronger support on renewable heat where many communities are still struggling to make projects work that are generally more complex than for renewable electricity, even with the innovative RHI. Similarly more support would have been beneficial on energy efficiency where there is not the same potential to generate community income as there is for renewable energy.

Within the Strategy itself, there are also some substantial issues around grid connection, finance, planning and industry dialogue around shared ownership that have been given to working groups to be addressed over the coming months. We are assured that DECC officials and ministers will be pushing for tangible outcomes from these working groups.

It will also be important to see continuing commitment to wider renewable energy and carbon reduction policy, without which any community energy strategy will founder. But ultimately the test will be the degree to which a rapidly scaling community energy sector, underpinned by a successful community energy strategy, begins to make more of an impact on DECC’s core energy agenda.

So whilst a final verdict will need to be put on hold for a little while, there’s no doubt that the community energy sector will be in a much stronger position following the implementation of this strategy, than it would have been without.

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