York Community Energy‘s chairperson Richard Lane discusses community energy: what exactly is it, and will it change the world?
When you stop to think about it, electricity still seems pretty magical. We suck it through wires on demand and store it in our phones, computers and Captain America novelty electric toothbrushes. We transform it at the touch of a button into lights, sounds, images, and plaque-removing rotary movement. We do it without a second thought – but that may not necessarily be a good thing. In the great transition to renewable energy, can we take responsibility for this ‘superpower’?
Caught in the crosshairs of climate breakdown and the reality of an energy market that the government concedes is not working (current solution: systematically hassle people not participating in the market), many people are asking: why can’t we grow our own power, the way we want it? It’s a powerful and disruptive idea, and very hard to resist. Why shouldn’t we? Renewables may be booming, but the way things are going it’ll take almost 400 years to get to a zero carbon energy system.
What can we as citizens do to help this slow process?
One of the many things a householder could do is install solar panels. If you have any land, you might also be able to install a medium sized turbine. But the rest of us?
Well, when a community gets together, that’s when we start to see impressive things happening.
There are hundreds of Community Energy groups across the UK doing just that – tens of thousands worldwide. Whenever you’re reading this, you can be sure that they are supplying power to the UK grid. More than 20 years after the Baywind Energy Co-operative became the first community-owned wind farm in the UK, they still deliver clean electricity to the Cumbrian grid. If it’s a still day, the solar panels owned by the Edinburgh Community Solar Co-operative and installed on 24 council buildings across the city could still be supplying as much as 1.4MW. And if conditions are really that bad, you can bet that the River Esk is flowing, turning the 50kW turbine installed by Whitby Esk Energy.
PHOTO: Heather “the weather” Reid (BBC Scotland) with pupils from Gylemuir Primary School in Edinburgh at the launch of the share offer for Edinburgh Solar Co-operartive. Gylemuir Primary School will benefit from the installation of solar panels. CREDIT: Edinburgh Solar Co-operative – full res image available from their website.
Projects like these have the potential to do more than clean up our electricity – they can change the relationship we have with the electricity that powers our lives. People who buy into these projects have an interest in maximising the use of renewables, which means using energy when it is abundant and scrimping when it is scarce – a handy trick to learn. It also brings money into a community – groups typically create a community fund, putting money into schemes to insulate homes, improve schools, or build community facilities. Cleaning up the grid AND building communities – why would you not?
At the moment, despite warm words of encouragement from UK politicians, there’s little to encourage community energy as it only provides about 0.3% of our power.
Can this really change the world?
Well, yes, if we want it to. After the oil crisis of the 1970s, Denmark took the decision to go all-out on renewables. They had a terrific wind resource (though, all modesty aside, not as good as ours) and the government saw the potential of engaging the private citizen in the project. It encouraged the formation of community co-operatives that would invest in the building of wind turbines. The strategy worked, massively: community co-operatives today own more than 70% of all the wind turbines in the country, helping it to pole position as the most wind-powered country in the world.
PHOTO: The Middelgrunden windfarm in Denmark – wholly publicly owned, 50% by a community energy co-operative. When built, it was the largest offshore windfarm in the world. CREDIT: Leonard G – full image available from Wikimedia Commons
It’s my conviction that renewables are inherently a democratising force. The energy of a river going over a weir, of the wind over the land or the sun on a roof does not belong to anyone in the way that a tanker of oil or a train full of coal does. It falls everywhere – which means that generation takes place over a much wider area. For better or worse, that involves us.
There’s hard work to be done getting to a zero-carbon grid. The economics and regulation being developed around renewables and energy storage are hugely complicated, and a lot of investment is needed to make the grid fit for decentralised power. Community energy groups often take a lot of work from a small volunteer base, and there’s no question that government could do vastly more to support the sector. But don’t wait to see who’s going to appear to fix our power system and save the day: it’s you. With a great power grid comes great responsibility.
Find out more about Community Energy and get involved with a group near you by checking out the Community Energy England website.