Friday, July 1, 2011

Community energy: small is big

Local community initiated and run renewable energy projects have been very common in Denmark for many years- about 80% of the wind generation capacity is locally owned. It seems to be one reason why local opposition to wind is much lower than in the UK, where there are very few locally owned projects. As the Danes say ‘ your own pigs don’t smell’.

It’s similar in Germany where many wind projects are locally owned. The local ownership idea has also spread to other technologies. As well as being a leader in wind, Denmark, makes a lot of use of district heating, and it is now developing some solar-fed heat networks, with some of them being run as community cooperatives.

So how far have we got in the UK? The Bay Wind co-op in Cumbria was the first breakthrough, and several more wind co-ops have followed including Westmill near Swindon:

Scotland has been the home to several more projects, the most recent being the community wind power scheme at Udny, Aberdeenshire, which started up last year to be followed by Torrance Farm Community Wind Energy project at Harthill. AAT in Wales has been trying to do the same thing. But it’s up uphill struggle, not least to raise finance. The Renewable Obligation is not much use for smaller schemes- it’s designed for large-scale commercial projects. On the continent the various Feed In Tariffs were by contrast much more use, and the UKs small new FiT may now help here. There had been hopes that some community owned solar farms could emerge, but the FiT for large PV projects has now been drastically cut back- by up to 70%.

However, the new scheme, backed by British Gas, is promising. To help community energy projects get off the ground, it has launched a special consumer tariff designed to help fund such projects. Its EnergyShare scheme is being run in partnership with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage. It will pay £10 into a fund for every year that the customer stays on the tariff. Individuals and communities register their projects on the EnergyShare and consumers who are on the tariff will vote for projects they want to support. British Gas has pump-primed the fund with £500,000. It has a target of reaching £15m, which means signing up 290,000 customers. Approved community projects will be able to bid for up to £100,000 each, and it could eventually fund about 150 projects, although many hundreds of groups have registered projects on the site.

More at

This lets you create a group and invite others to join or support you to help with your funding application. Or search for a group in your area to join:

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these films about what others have achieved and how you can get started:

You’d almost believe that David Cameron’s Big Society ‘self help’ localism idea was real, reading this! That issue was explored in a recent Radio 4 programme which asked, did the ‘Big Society’ have any relationship to Schumachers 1970's ‘Small is Beautiful’ idea?

The conclusion was that there were some overlaps with Cameron’s policies, but also some major conflicts: not least that Schumacher was profoundly anti- nuclear, as a large scale dangerous centralised technology. There is also the fundamental issue that the underlying aim of the Con Dems is to cut state support and ‘Big Government’. So of course they like local ‘self reliance’. That doesn’t make self-help bad, but they see its practical impact as small.

Last years new National Policy Statement commented: ‘The Government has put in place financial rewards as it would like to see decentralised and community energy systems make a much greater contribution to our targets. Whilst the Government believes that these measures have a very important part to play in meeting our energy and climate change objectives, they will not enable us to meet these objectives on their own’.

The implication is that we also need big stuff- like nuclear power. In theory that’s not meant to be state subsidised, but it’s now becoming pretty clear that it will be- one way or another. For example nuclear operators insurance liability is to be limited to the first £1bn in any episode. The rest would be met by taxpayers. Fukushima looks likely to costs Japanese taxpayers many hundreds of billions.

It’s hardly surprising then that, when given a change to vote on the nuclear issue, most taxpayers oppose new nuclear overwhelming- 94% of those voting in the Italian referendum on nuclear voted against it. And interestingly, even in France, a MORI IPSOS opinion poll now shows 67% opposing nuclear power, with there being signs of a break up of the long running support amongst the technocratic elite. But it’s not the same everywhere. The UK figure was only 50% against. And with the UK government keen to support investment by EDF and E.ON, and Germany, Italy, Switzerland, along with Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Greece, and even perhaps now France, all being off limits, the UK now looks like the main site for EU nuclear expansion.

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