On a bright warm day in mid-June Community Energy England hosted their summer conference in Bristol, bringing together groups from around the country to share ideas and best practice and to support each other in accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels. 

The event, which was the flagship event of Community Energy Fortnight, offered the first opportunity for community energy groups to get together in person since before the covid pandemic began. 

Dan Curtis was at the event to represent BHESCo, and here he provides highlights and thoughts from a memorable day.

The benefits of community energy

Sometimes we can be so involved with our work locally and so focused on achieving results for Brighton and Hove that it can be easy to forget the scale of the community energy sector on the national level. 

Attending the summer conference was an ideal opportunity to be reminded of just how many passionate groups there are operating all across the UK, working hard to make clean energy affordable and accessible to their communities. 

The day began with presentations from the acting chief executives of Community Energy England, Philip Coventry and Duncan Law, who among other things mentioned how £1 of government spending in the community energy sector delivers an astonishing £60 worth of economic benefit. This is compared to an estimated £1 of economic value achieved for every £1 of government spending invested as part of the ‘levelling-up’ strategy. It certainly seems clear where real value lies!

Dan Curtis with Ollie Pendered, Chief Executive of Community Energy South

The value of an engaged local council

One of the main sponsors of the conference was Bristol City Council, who gave a presentation on the work they have been doing to support community energy in the city.

In particular, I was interested to hear about Bristol’s City Leap programme, an innovative venture which seeks to attract £1 billion of funding from international investors to deliver the city’s net zero carbon commitments. 

After receiving expressions of interest from 180 companies, the City Leap programme has whittled this down to just one joint investor, a partnership between Ameresco and Vattenfall. The programme is set to receive £420 million of investment in the first 5 years, of which £4 million is ear-marked for community energy projects.

Developing Smart Local Energy Systems

A lot of attention was given to the development of Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES), which involves the use of smart meters and big data to optimise the electricity grid to provide a more flexible and reactive system.

This could include the creation of hyper-local micro-grids powered by locally sourced renewable energy and optimised by algorithms and computer learning.

This transition will involve the transformation of Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) into Distribution System Operators (DSOs), which could provide an opportunity for community energy groups to take advantage of new revenue generating options like peer-to-peer trading or providing flexibility services.

We heard from Bath and West Community Energy (BWCE) about their ‘Flex Community’ pilot scheme which investigated the potential for households to provide flexibility services to the grid by pooling their resources via a virtual platform.

The research pilot partnered with Western Power Distribution to simulate real-time flexibility requests, testing the platform and householder response and attempting to validate the business model for scaling and replication.

The research concluded that you would need at least 500 households involved in order to break even and make a flexibility business model financially viable. 

The full list of all 11 innovation projects that were funded by Next Generation is available here.

smart meter in home display with a time of use tariff encouraging demand side response
A greater understanding of how and when we use energy will support the creation of smart local energy networks which can react in realtime to changes in renewable energy generation and energy demand

C.H.E.E.S.E. thermal imaging service

One of the organisations who were hosting an information stall was the C.H.E.E.S.E. project, or the Cold Homes Energy Efficiency Survey Experts project.

The Bristol based community interest company aims to reduce domestic energy losses at low cost, with surveys starting from £135 and made free to people in poor housing conditions and in fuel poverty. Their thermal-imaging surveys identify where homes are losing heat and suggest remedies to fix any problems. 

By using thermal imaging software, the team are able to engage residents with the concept of energy efficiency and to communicate easily and visually where weaknesses exist in a property. 

This seemed like an excellent initiative and one that could be easily replicated in other parts of the UK. 

Conclusions

It was very clear from the conference that the UK community energy sector is determined to forge ahead with new business models and initiatives despite a lack of support from central government. 

The level of passion and expertise within the sector was palpable throughout the day, and was very inspiring to be a part of. 

Many people who work in the community energy sector are highly skilled, highly talented individuals who could most likely secure a bigger paycheck by choosing to work with a large corporate. But instead they choose to dedicate themselves to this often overlooked sector which does so much to deliver real social and environmental benefits to communities throughout the country. 

The community energy sector is populated by visionaries, by people willing to put theory into practice and who do what is necessary to deliver a fairer deal for people and planet, regardless of what obstacles lie in the way.

It was a privilege to be a part of such an inspiring event, and we come away determined to work even harder to realise the dream of powering our communities with 100% locally owned renewable energy.

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