The COVID-19 pandemic has given the world a unique opportunity to “build back better” and change the old, destructive ways that were leading our society to inevitable climate and ecological breakdown.

Community energy groups will play an absolutely vital role in this change, for a number of reasons. According to research from Community Energy England, community energy groups already generate more than 160MW of electricity in this country, enough to supply 60,000 UK homes with clean renewable energy1.

However, this number will need to increase greatly in order to help the UK reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Firstly, what do we mean by community energy?

Community energy groups are initiatives that help to meet the energy demand in an area through locally owned energy generating assets, energy efficiency upgrades, and campaigns which encourage tariff switching and the alleviation of fuel poverty.

Projects are either fully or mostly owned by the community, as opposed to large energy companies, and can be connected together to create localised microgrids and heat networks.

Generally, projects are supported by a team of experienced professionals to help with any technical queries, and to oversee and guide other stakeholders along the process of installing and maintaining their energy measures.

By starting to generate their own clean energy, and by reducing energy demand through efficiency upgrades, the cost of energy is reduced for the local community as customers are less reliant on the rates set by utility companies.

Community energy projects also reduce the risk of blackouts and transmission losses as the energy is not being created hundreds of miles away and transported to the area.

How can community energy groups help uk to reach net zero emissions -community energy project in brighton
Community energy projects present an opportunity for local residents to come together to install clean energy generation and energy saving measures on buildings such as the Hollingdean Community Centre in Central Brighton (pictured above). Photo: BHESCo

Why will community energy help us reach net zero?

Creating energy is the single most carbon intensive activity we as humans partake in. Years of burning fossil fuels in order to create a quick, easy and cheap energy supply has resulted in the warming of our planet and the destruction of the natural environment.

According to the European Environment Agency, energy production is by far the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, being responsible for two thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is even higher in Europe, with energy production being responsible for approximately 78% of total EU emissions in 2015 2.

In order to reach net zero emissions by 2030, energy production is the main area that needs rapid and intense decarbonisation.

How can community energy groups help to decarbonise our energy system?

Currently, we have an energy system that relies heavily on centralised energy generation which is mostly owned by a handful of large multi-national companies such as Centrica, EDF, EON, and Iberdrola.

Electricity is generated in large power stations located at great distances away from the communities which rely on them.

This way of doing business creates a detached relationship for consumers, where many people don’t actually know how or where their energy is being produced and thus often don’t think about the impact of their energy choices.

How can community energy groups help uk to reach net zero emissions - fossil fuel energy generation
Community energy offers a local alternative to the existing system of large centralised power generation which is owned and operated by multinational corporations and typically reliant on fossil fuels. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Community energy groups decentralise and distribute the energy system which delivers numerous benefits for the end consumer.

Firstly, community energy projects make use of spaces that have energy generating potential but are currently under-utilised. Buildings such as libraries, schools, sports clubs and community centres all have large roofs that present a good location for rooftop solar power. What’s more, these are buildings which are at peak use in daytmie hours when solar power is most plentiful.

This approach makes use of space for clean energy production that otherwise wouldn’t be considered by large companies, who generally think on a much larger scale. The National Grid predicts that in order to reach the UK’s (unambitious) target of net zero by 2050, an increase in demand will result in the need for power generation capacity to increase by approximately 20% 3.

Therefore, if we want to reach net zero by 2030 (the year that the world must reach net zero emissions according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), a rapid increase in power generation capacity is essential.

How community energy groups help meet increasing electricity demand

The Welsh community energy co-operative Egni Co-op, along with funding from the Welsh Government Energy Service, are installing 6,000 solar panels across Newport on buildings such as care homes, schools and council depots. The panels will generate 1,973,000 units of low carbon electricity and save approximately 348 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year 4. That is a huge difference, and all from using buildings that were already in place.

Thus, it is so important to create more energy without having to use more land, making community energy groups a key component in our fight for net zero.

Local energy projects can also increase resilience and reliability of electricity supply. A freak blackout in September 2019 due to a lightning strike lost 1,300MW of electricity. When communities can build and operate their own energy generation and energy storage assets they reduce their vulnerability to such blackouts.

Feeling connected to your energy supply

Community energy groups also bring back the connection between consumers and their energy supply.

Most people just turn their heating and TV on and expect it to work. They have no thought about where that energy has come from, what method has been used to create it or of the people who are involved in making it happen.

By developing local community energy projects, consumers can know exactly where their energy has come from geographically, the renewable resources that have been deployed to generate this energy, and the individuals who have contributed to making the project successful.

How can community energy groups help uk to reach net zero emissions - team
Community energy projects connect people to their local energy supply emotionally as well as practically, which can encourage a more responsible approach to energy consumption. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Community energy projects give local residents a democratic say in their energy provision and empower people to actively participate in and benefit from the running of the project.

Therefore, people will have a stronger connection with their energy supply and will realise that their daily habits impact the resource capacity available, such as having heating on all day or doing laundry at the same time as everyone is cooking dinner.

Changing consumer behaviours will be a big factor in reaching net zero emissions, and it has been found that the existence of community energy groups encourages people to adopt demand reduction behaviours and to invest in energy efficiency measures within their own home 5.

“Accelerating the movement of community energy closer to the centre of UK energy policy could have a galvanising affect that will drive lasting change across the board.”

– Community Energy England.

Empowering locals and investing into the local community

Another benefit of community energy is that it can bring great economic benefit to a local community, creating jobs, reducing living costs, and encouraging investment, all factors that will improve the quality of life of local people.

Through investment from our shareholders BHESCo have completed more than fifty community energy projects in and around the area of Brighton and Hove, projects which have employed dozens of local contractors and which will deliver energy bill savings for our customers for decades to come.

Community energy groups mostly focus on covering their operating costs and are not concerned with maximising income, meaning any surplus profits can be invested back into future community energy projects or accumulated in a community benefit fund 6.

This can help the UK reach net zero because community benefit funds can be used to support other decarbonisation initiatives, such as transportation and food production.

Bringing it all together - why community energy is a crucial component of the UK's carbon reduction strategy

To summarise, community energy groups can significantly help the UK reach net zero by 2030 by:

We believe that the community energy sector is vitally important for the future of UK energy supply and net zero carbon commitments.

In order to reach net zero and prevent devastating climate chaos, we all need to work together to decentralise our energy system and increase the number of active community energy groups around the country.

Why not invest in your local community energy project where you will have full knowledge of the great causes that your money is contributing to.


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