At key moments in the political cycle, the subject of energy policy lurches back into the headlines. We’re seeing this now, in the build-up to the 2015 General Election – a debate fuelled by the Big Six, once again, hiking up their prices. Cue a political exchange of fire in which politicians fight it out in the media to see who can gain the biggest short-term political advantage, regardless of the long-term consequences for energy policy.
Far too many people in the UK seem resigned to being powerless observers in the debate, and unmoved by the horrendous prospect of people having to choose between heating and eating. But while the Big Six battle it out for dominancy in an energy system that has clearly been broken for a long time, throwing in the odd offer of free loft insulation or a low-energy light bulb for good measure, an underground movement with much more promise is gaining momentum.
The UK is seeing a surge in community-owned energy, spear-headed by the likes of The Cooperative Group, the National Trust, and the Low Carbon Hub in Oxfordshire, to name just a few. This is a sector replete with opportunities and enthusiasm – as well as commendable perseverance in the face of numerous legislative and policy barriers, political inertia, and supine kowtowing by politicians to the incumbent heavyweights in the industry.
I’ve had the privilege of visiting a number of community-owned sites, both in the UK and abroad, and I’m always left with an irrepressible sense of its potential – not just to mitigate fuel poverty but to raise living standards across the board. After all, it comes with a whole raft of benefits, from opportunities to build social cohesion and create new jobs, as well as to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. And with share options available for as little as £1 on some projects, with returns of 4% per annum, it’s financially inclusive to boot.
So how much energy are we actually talking about, and what impact might it have on the economy? A recent report by ResPublica, ‘The Community Renewables Economy: Starting up, scaling up and spinning out’, suggested that 5.2GW of community renewable electricity is achievable by 2020, or soon after. Independent researcher Rebecca Willis, in turn, cites a potential value of £6 billion to the energy economy. It’s clearly an investment opportunity that is starting to resonate with consumers, with share offers in communityowned schemes regularly exceeding targets well in advance of closing dates. People love the idea that they can take energy matters into their own hands!
Community ownership can never be the complete solution to our current energy crisis. We need to shift the entire system onto a more sustainable footing, diversifying our energy sources through renewable energy projects at both large and small scale. But combine community energy with options such as farm-based renewables, and the potential becomes really exciting.
Photo credit: Andrew Aitchison/Ashden