Thanks to our friends at Renewable Energy Hub for contributing this guest article
Why community is key to tackling Coronavirus and climate change
A sense of community has rarely been more important than it is now. The unprecedented response to the global pandemic Covid -19 has resulted in millions of people working together for the common good.
As the UK went into lockdown to slow the spread of Coronavirus, community services, members of the public and an army of volunteers have pulled together to support those in our society who are unable to help themselves at this time. People have found new and innovative ways to keep in touch, check in on neighbours in need and do their bit to support those feeling lonely and frightened in light of Government advice to stay home and stay safe.
This same feeling of working for a common cause can also be seen in the increasing number of community-led renewable energy projects. We are after all already fighting a battle to stop catastrophic climate change which is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our times notwithstanding the global pandemic Covid -19.
Community energy is as the title suggests energy generated by a community for the use of that community. Specifically, the role of community energy is to provide help with reducing energy use; managing energy more efficiently; generating energy and purchasing energy.
By combining resources and working together, community energy projects allow local communities to access cheaper energy and options for improved energy efficiency as well as adding social and economic benefits to local areas.
Despite the lack of most visible government support and policy changes that relate to renewable tariffs impacting the economic viability of community energy projects, the opportunities afforded by these enterprises are still as valid as ever.
Community Energy in the UK
Community Energy England, made up of organisations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, issue annual reports to show how the community energy market is performing. Back in 2018 Community Energy England were able to identify 275 active community energy organisations.
The type of low carbon activities these organisations were involved in covered five different areas: electricity generation, energy storage, energy efficiency, heat generation and low carbon transport. The kind of renewable energy generation projects communities can install include harnessing solar, wind or hydro power.
By the end of 2018 there were already community generation sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland that amounted to 168 MW of generation capacity. The majority of this could be attributed at this time to solar (138.3 MW), while wind (27.4 MW) and hydro (2.2 MW) trailed behind.
Adding the 68 MW generated by community energy projects in Scotland, brought the total capacity by December 2018 to 236 MW.
The majority of community projects tend to focus on energy generation. However, energy storage is an important factor to be taken into consideration if the energy generated from renewable sources is to be properly utilised.
Though heat storage and battery storage costs have dramatically reduced in recent years, the upfront costs associated with a battery storage community project are high. This means that in order for community projects of this type to be successful they tend to be supported by innovation grants or developed in conjunction with universities or commercial partners.
Local groups sometimes engage in activities to help the communities they live in to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. They may do this by acting as advisers to others or by working to implement changes themselves through grants and funding schemes.
Typical community energy efficiency projects include energy audits; advice and workshops; energy efficient lighting; insulation; energy switching; energy cafes and smart meter installation.
The main aim is to try and reduce the amount of energy needed by households which can help to cut the bills of those involved in these projects. The impact of these initiatives is often limited if only advice is on offer rather than installers of energy efficiency.
Subsidies are still available for heat generation technologies under the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) until March 2021. Professedly this support is there for community energy groups too though these groups could be taking greater advantage of this.
The different types of renewable heat generation available are biomass; ground source heat pump; solar thermal and air source heat pump.
In the early part of this year it was looking likely that community interest in heat generation would increase as the 2021 RHI deadline got closer. It is not yet possible to know how much the Coronavirus pandemic will affect the renewable industry. The bigger fear is what might happen to these kinds of community energy projects when there are no longer any subsidies.
The benefits of community energy
Now that we have had a look at the various types of community energy projects taking place across the UK, it is worth considering what the benefits of community energy are and why they play an important part in the fight against climate change. There are both economic and social benefits to community energy initiatives.
It is probable that any initiative will be of economic benefit to a local area both directly and indirectly. There will of course be an initial outlay for the project in either money or time. Regardless of this, homes, community buildings and schools can benefit from low cost energy generation and a reduction in fuel poverty.
If energy efficiency upgrades are introduced there can be further cost savings. Those community projects that set up EV charging infrastructure can reduce transportation costs for local people. Further benefits include local job creation; dividend payments to local investors; the development of community benefit funds to prolong impact and local economic resilience.
Although the social benefits to being involved in a community energy project are not as easy to quantify as the economic ones, they can have far reaching outcomes.
Many advocates of community energy feel that the social benefits of projects are not recommended enough, and that the public could be more involved.
Community projects can increase people’s confidence as they feel they are achieving something together. As people unite to support a common goal, social opportunities often spring up in the local area. There may also be potential for local prosperity which not only strengthens the community but may allow for community benefit funds to be set up which can be channelled into local priorities.
Perhaps most important of all is the potential to educate people about energy efficiency even further afield in the area.
What are the motivations behind starting a community energy project?
There are many reasons why communities are motivated to carry on starting and delivering community energy projects despite the challenges they face.
At the top of the list and the biggest motivation for taking on community energy projects is the desire to tackle climate change. This reflects people’s deep concern about their environment and the planet we inhabit.
Many communities see renewable energy projects as a way to generate local income to help with development and to raise awareness of the environmental issues that society is facing.
Other motivations that incentivise communities include being able to reduce energy bills and tackle fuel poverty.
By supporting community services and improving energy services communities often feel empowered. Positive experiences can influence other communities to consider exploring what options might be possible for them.
Though Many Government schemes have permanently closed, there are still opportunities for community groups hoping to get involved in community energy projects. The schemes and grants available range from grant funding based around specific principles, location-based grants and more general funding and financing organisations. It is important to regularly check the latest list held by Community Energy England as they change frequently.
Why community energy projects are so important
When successful, community energy projects have the power to draw people in not only as consumers but as active participants or partners in a process of change. Partners can have a say in how things happen, be actively involved, and feel a connection with the outcomes. This sense of collective purpose is created when individuals see ‘people like me’ getting involved whether it is family, friends, neighbours, or work colleagues.
The more people hear about different ways they can get involved the more normalised the energy projects become. It is no longer unusual to take up energy efficiency measures or to participate in renewable energy projects. Trust plays a big part in this as people are more likely to work with people they know and see regularly. People are more likely to be on board with change if they can see tangible benefits for their local area and themselves.
If successful, community energy can also help to underpin the more rapid role out of a decentralised energy supply system by giving local people a stake in the outcome.
Most importantly, community-led responses can potentially make a significant contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions from the smallest rural community to the centres of our big cities. Communities can play a valuable part in the fight against climate change.
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