Written for and first published here: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-10/22/community-energy-initiatives
The Big Six energy companies control 99 percent of the UK market, but energy cooperatives — democratically run community renewable energy programmes — are springing up in the fight against the “fossil fuel economy”
When we think of community energy projects, we often look to the developing world. From Brazil to Indonesia, local schemes bring energy by the people, for the people, often to areas that have never had access to electricity before. These projects bring jobs in construction, operation and maintenance, often with caveats that say any surplus is shared or invested in local business or schools. But surely, the same thing isn’t necessary or possible in the UK?
Guy Shrubsole, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, believes community energy is vital to wrestle control from what he describes as the “dirty polluting cartel”, the Big Six energy companies who control 99 per cent of the UK energy market: Scottish Power, British Gas, EON, Npower, Southern Electric and EDF. This murky world where shareholders have to see a profit has left us, he says, with “chronic underinvestment in infrastructure”, “confusing, opaque tariffs” and a country “hooked on expensive fossil fuels despite the increase in gas prices”.
Friends of the Earth calls for a complete decarbonisation of infrastructure by 2030 in order to ensure energy independence and stave off environmental disaster. Even the government’s Met Office now accepts that “since the early 1900s, our climate has changed rapidly due to persistent man-made changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use”. Vestas’ most recent Global Consumer Wind Study, conducted by TSN Gallup among 24,000 consumers in 20 countries, found that 85 per cent want more renewable energy. Germany, held up as an economic powerhouse, already gets around 25 per cent of its energy from renewables. Denmark powers a third of its country on wind. In both countries, there is less opposition to so-called “green” infrastructure because local populations have a financial stake in democratically owned and run organisations. With no large corporations involved, they can control the profits.
“Renewables can do it,” Shrubsole said. “We know that six times more energy can be generated off shore than the UK needs per year, using wind, wave, tidal and even solar.” While critics argue that we can’t cope when the wind doesn’t blow, Shrubsole believes that this is a tech problem that the national grid can deal with. And for those who say renewables are too expensive, he notes that the costs are only decreasing while gas bills are at record levels and rising. “Nuclear is actually the most expensive ‘solution’ and wouldn’t be ready until the 2020s. Green is one of the only growth areas in our economy today, including creating job opportunities, but the industry needs supportive policies.”
Ewa Jasiewicz, from Fuel Poverty Action, echoes Shrubsole’s sentiment. “We don’t believe energy should be a commodity controlled by the market. We have a right to energy. But at the moment that is a right we have to pay for.” Fuel Poverty Action descended on the Big Six at the UK Energy Summit where future climate policy is decided. “They are part of the problem, the fossil fuel economy,” she said. “Anything other than this and they would be abolishing themselves.”
So if we can’t leave it to our utility companies, and the lobbying power that comes with their position means government is unlikely to take drastic measures, who can we depend on to deliver the energy we want and that the planet needs? The answer might be that we have to do it ourselves. Energy cooperatives are springing up all over the UK, dispelling the myth that renewables are too expensive, not ready or not worth it, and proving that nuclear is not a necessary alternative. Some in the most unlikely of places…
Afsheen Rashid works for Lambeth council in London looking after Brixton Energy. The co-operative is about to go into the second phase of its plan to “repower London”, having successfully launched the UK’s first community-owned solar powered energy project in the south of the capital. Phase one is exceeding its targets for the year, having already generated 70 per cent of the amount it estimated it could, despite only being operational since April. Solar 2 will extend this across London and they are asking for people to pledge between £250 and £20,000, with up to three per cent return on investment, tax relief on your money and a shareholder’s vote. The second project aims to raise £61,500 to enable the purchase and installation of new solar panels on the roofs on Brixton’s Loughborough Estate.
Lambeth Councillor, Lib Peck, said: “The project will bring significant benefits for the local community and will help inspire locals to become more energy efficient and play their part, in whatever small way they choose, in creating a clean energy future. Lambeth Council is pleased to be supporting Repowering South London and I look forward to seeing Brixton Energy Solar 2’s solar panels glinting in the sun on the roofs of buildings on the Loughborough Estate, generating clean energy.”
Glyn Thomas works with Community Energy Warwick, a cooperative which aims to decentralise energy production, increase efficiency and cut carbon emissions in Warwickshire. They raised £115,000 in six weeks from 70 local investors for their first project. “We generate energy where it is needed, initially on a Stratford and a Warwick hospital that now use all of this energy on-site. This connects people locally with the way energy is generated and used. It gets them interested in it, which makes them use less, effecting a long-term behavioural change – the holy grail for any campaign. It also allows local people to benefit financially.”
But it isn’t easy. “Community Energy Warwick took a huge amount of voluntary work,” Glyn said. “We started with six volunteers and needed finance, legal, project management and procurement expertise. Plus a lot of goodwill. Coops UK was instrumental in helping us. What would make it easier would be more grant funding, low-interest loans that surprisingly weren’t available to cooperatives from the government’s Green Bank or Green Deal, and a national body to support community projects where we could share best practice, as well as technological and legal expertise.”
What energy co-ops do is use existing technology to give people new ways of trading electricity that aren’t imposed from outside, which is seen as the biggest reason why local areas resist such projects. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, agreed: “If one of the big energy providers puts a wind turbine on the hill above a village, sometimes, understandably, people get upset about that. But if the village owns it and the profits from that wind turbine goes to put a new roof on the village hall, or some extra facilities in the school, then that wind turbine looks very different. When people put solar panels on their house, they get to see their electricity meter essentially running backwards.”
“Decentralised, community-owned, local schemes and even individual panels on people’s roofs, help connect people back to the energy supply and make them realise that there’s a cost to it. In terms of the type of system that’s created, it’s much more resistant to shocks and what we need for the future.”