All in a day’s work: incoherent Coalition simultaneously publishes #CommunityEnergy Strategy and rips up standards for renewable energy in new builds

David Cameron has announced that his government is ripping up more than 3,000 environmental protection regulations, including building standards relating to demands for renewable energy sources.

Environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot tweeted that weakening building regulations in a cold country is a recipe for “either misery or spending a fortune on fuel bills”.

On the same day, Monday 27th January, the Coalition government published its Community Energy Strategy (CES). This requires local authorities to support community renewable energy schemes, provides some increased funding for such schemes, and aims to reduce people’s fuel bills.

Commenting on the CES, James Lloyd, National Trust Senior Energy and Environment Adviser, warned,

“Community energy can’t be used as a fig leaf to cover failure to meet other renewables and climate targets.”

Community Energy Strategy sees community energy generating up to 1.4% of UK’s electricity in 2020

The CES estimates that by 2020, community electricity (both fully community-owned electricity generation projects, and the share of commercial electricity developments owned by communities under shared ownership models) could generate between 0.5GW and 3GW from a mixture of solar PV, onshore wind and hydro projects.

This represents between 2.2% and 14% of the total installed capacity of these technologies, and between 0.3% and 1.4% of the UK’s entire electricity consumption in 2020.

3GW, the top end of this range, could provide enough electricity for over 1 million homes. CES also suggests that beyond 2020, there could be a greater proportion of community -generated electricity.

This seems unambitious, given that in 2011, renewable energy in Denmark accounted for 40% of electricity produced in the country.

What CES wants community energy groups to do

The CES identifies four main activities for community energy groups:

  • Generating energy (electricity or heat)
  • Reducing energy use (saving energy through energy efficiency and behaviour change)
  • Managing energy (balancing supply and demand through the use of smart meters and other smart technology)
  • Purchasing energy (collective purchasing or switching to save money on energy)

Government support for community energy activities

The Community Energy Strategy includes various forms of government funding for community energy activities.

The CES introduces a new £10m Urban Community Energy Fund (UCEF). This is a two-stage fund that will offer grants of £20K to urban community energy generation projects in England, to carry out feasibility work on installing solar pv or wind turbines, and loans of up to £130K to support planning applications and develop robust business cases which will attract further investment. The UCEF matches the existing Rural Community Energy Fund (RCEF), administered by WRAP, and uses the same application process.  The RCEF provides funding for communities in England to explore the feasibility of, and planning for, electricity and heat projects. The UCEF will be open to all communities in England that are not eligible to access RCEF.

An additional £1m for the Big Energy Saving Network will continue the organisation’s work into 2014/15. The Big Energy Saving Network funds third sector organisations and community groups to help vulnerable people to reduce their energy costs through changing tariffs, switching energy supplier and take-up of energy efficiency offers. As part of this work, the CES wants communities  to:

“get involved in making energy efficiency policies such as the Green Deal and the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) work better”.

Funding for the Green Deal Communities scheme will increase from £20m to £80m. This funding, which will be sourced by local authorities, aims to enable community groups to get involved in energy efficiency retrofits in partnership with local authorities.

A community energy saving competition will offer £100,000 to communities to develop innovative approaches to saving energy and money. Community groups interested in applying can register their interest here:

Seed funding from government will enable community energy groups to set up a “one-stop shop” with information for people interested in developing community energy. One of its functions will be to provide new monitoring and evaluation tools, for community energy groups to measure the impact of their projects. It will include case studies highlighting best practice.

CES also introduces various Government measures for community energy, and updates others.

The CES envisages a substantial increase in the renewables industry’s offer to community groups of some level of shared ownership of new, onshore renewables developments. By 2015 this will probably be the norm.

The government is considering what kinds of community energy schemes could be supported by housebuilders’ carbon emissions offsets! These offsets would be allowable for carbon emissions from new homes which cannot be mitigated by insulation or integrated renewables.

Community energy projects will play an important role in piloting and driving the take up of smart metering.

Local authorities must back community energy projects in their areas.

Government is committed to negotiating with the EU on allowing combinations of grants from public funds to be combined with FIT/ RHI without State Aid penalties – this would mean that community renewable groups, like PCP and many others, would be able to keep both Lottery grants and FIT payments.

Government will  provide advice and best practice on neighbourhood planning for community energy, for communities considering including proposals for community energy in their neighbourhood plan.

The government will consult in spring 2014 on doubling the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) maximum capacity ceiling from 5MW to 10MW for community projects.

Local authorities are encouraged to reinvest the business rates retention from renewable energy in further information, support services and advice for community energy schemes,

So how helpful is the Community Energy Strategy?

IMO it is a missed opportunity. It is basically more neoliberal same old same old.

Figure from Energy Bill Revolution (and still counting)

In terms of energy conservation/energy efficiency (the first priority for reducing fuel poverty and limiting climate change), the Community Energy Strategy fails to admit that the problem of energy wastage is structural (a nation full of badly built, old housing stock) and needs collective solutions, such as the publicly-funded, area-based retrofits that Councils were carrying out before the Coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review slashed local authority funding for home insulation and replaced it with the tragic, householder-funded Green Deal. That almost no-one is buying into, predictably.

Practical support from the CES for community energy is lukewarm and minimal.  Aiming to generate all of 1.4% of total UK consumed electricity from community renewables in 2020 seems a bit pathetic, no?

The CES looks more like the Coalition’s riposte to Labour’s pledge to freeze energy bills than a serious programme.

More informed and thorough commentary, mostly underwhelmed, comes from Rachel Coxcoon at the Centre for Sustainable Energy,  the Friends of the Earth  and James Lloyd, the National Trust’s Senior Energy and Environment Adviser.

“Small-scale thinking…will undermine energy planning in the national interest”

A final few words from Rachel Coxcoon’s response to the CES:

“The biggest disappointment is the lack of detail and ambition in the strategy for the use of local planning tools. The strategy encourages the use of neighbourhood plans to plan for community led renewable energy developments. DCLG are apparently supportive of this and will work with DECC to make sure that the range of advice and support services are able to offer support on community energy. This is a minimal, and extremely overdue commitment. The commitment should be around really broad local planning, which allows communities to have those really big conversations about their available technical resources, and how they can best be utilised in the national interest, for local benefit.”

“The real risk of using neighbourhood planning in the way being proposed in the strategy is that it limits communities to thinking about renewable energy in a way that encourages parochialism…; small-scale thinking that will undermine energy planning in the national interest. Indeed, one of the examples given in the strategy appears to explicitly exclude the development of large-scale renewable energy, and contains policies that limit support to renewable energy that is linked to individual buildings (or groups), ‘as close as practicable’, and ‘in scale with’ those buildings. DECC seems to have completely missed the risk that neighbourhood planning can easily be used as a tool to attempt to block development of renewable energy at any useful scale.”

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