Community energy projects held back by government’s “green crap” attitude

Community energy projects are being held back by inadequate Government support, says a research report from University of East Anglia (UEA). Why does this matter? After all, community energy projects are small scale and aren’t going to change the world.

Still, the UK government’s 2009 Low Carbon Transition Plan places a lot of emphasis on the role of households and communities in reducing energy use and developing low carbon electricity generation, so presumably the Government that once declared itself the “greenest government ever” would want community energy to thrive.

But that was before David Cameron was reported as saying it was time to get rid of all the “green crap”.

Update 20.3.2022: The Observer reported yesterday that Cameron’s decision to cut ‘green crap’ now costs each household in England £150 a year. An analysis by Carbon Brief shows that energy bills in the UK are nearly £2.5bn higher than they would have been if climate policies had not been scrapped over the past decade. The Observer summarised:

“Analysis by Carbon Brief looked at the cumulative effect of ending onshore wind subsidies, cutting energy efficiency funding and scrapping a programme to make all new homes carbon neutral. It also factored in cuts to solar energy subsidies.

“With the energy price cap already at £1,277 a year and rising to £1,971 in less than a fortnight and an expected £3,000 in October, the analysis found that maintaining the green policies would have reduced energy costs by £8.3bn a year for the economy overall, part of which would equate to £150 a year per household.”

Back to the 2014 University of East Anglia report

So maybe it’s not surprising that the UEA researchers concluded in 2014 that although there were signs of an emergent community energy “niche”, it is not robust, capable of exerting a stratgeic influence or of diffusing more widely. For this to happen, there would need to be better-resourced support organisations, with the ability to lobby effectively for policy and industry support and to help community energy groups more effectively.

The researchers  also call for a more “benign and stable” policy context – one where the narrow constraints of business and market discipline are relaxed and a broader set of goals is recognised, including non-monetary goals.

But  the researchers question whether this emerging sector will ever coalesce into a robust “niche”, since many of the factors that this requires may not be forthcoming, for example a benign and stable policy context.

Freda Davis, the Green Party candidate for Ryburn ward in the Calderdale Council elections, said,

“I can well believe there is a lack of support from Government. In spite of all the talk about the big society, the Coalition has no understanding of community ethos and the common good.”

So what now?

The researchers call for an approach which recognises the diversity of community energy projects, doesn’t attempt to force them into achieving a single set of performance targets, (eg for reducing carbon emissions as part of the Low Carbon Transformation Project), and provides resources for greater face-to-face shared learning, rather than trying to train people working on community energy projects to follow a single blueprint for action.

They reached this conclusion after looking at policy support available to community energy projects, and noting the change from New Labour prize competitions and grants, like DECC’s Low Carbon Communities Challenge, to the Coalition Government’s emphasis on revenue guarantee schemes like Feed In Tariffs which requires community energy groups to function more like a business.

They found the unstable policy context causes problems for community energy groups and for the support organisations that try and help them. In addition, community energy groups are under-resourced and overstretched. The researchers write about the emotional stamina, social skills and confidence that community energy groups and their support organisations need simply to keep going.

Even reading the research report is exhausting! Let alone trying to get a community energy project off the ground!

As well as looking at the government policy context for community energy, and its effects on a wide range of community energy projects geared at both energy saving and renewable energy generation, the research tested whether “niche theory” can apply to community energy projects.

Niche theory is about the way that innovative small scale actions can replicate and become transformational when taken all together.

The researchers wanted to find if Strategic Niche Management, an aspect of niche theory geared to supporting niche activities as a way of spreading social/technical innovation, would work in a community energy context.

One problem with Strategic Niche Management is that it seems to ignore the wider political context and the need for political change, if the UK is to make the transition to a low carbon economy where we collectively use less energy and generate more renewable energy.

The UEA researchers don’t seem to have given a lot of thought to this drawback, although they do say that a common feature of grassroots innovations is that they try to solve structural problems through project-based solutions. Which is kind of another (de-politicised) way of saying something similar.

Instead they focussed on identifying whether a community energy niche exists or is emerging.

To answer the question of whether community energy projects are contributing to the formation of a niche, they looked at whether they were carrying out specific activities that are essential to replicating their innovations:

  • shared learning
  • networking
  • developing shared expectations and visions

This led them to the conclusion that a community energy niche may be emerging – although they say this niche has goals that aren’t limited to low carbon energy, but include regeneration, reduction or elimination or fuel poverty, and strengthened social ties.

And they found that the niche isn’t robust either, and may never be, given the lack of political commitment to it.

This is despite the Coalition government’s announcement of its Community Energy Strategy in January 2014 – generally taken as too unambitious and poorly resourced to be capable of achieving much.

At the time of the Coalition’s launch of its Community Energy Strategy, Calderdale Council voted to accept proposals for the Council to set up a community benefit society, Calderdale Community Energy, in partnership with local third sector organisations like Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre and Pennine Community Power. Calderdale Community Energy aims to support the development of community renewable energy projects in Calderdale.

Calderdale Council’s Carbon Projects Officer Emma Appleton said recently that the proposed Cromwell Bottom community microhydro project is progressing.

You can read the research report here.

Update 19.3.2022 Calderdale Community Energy says on its Facebook group:

“With the ongoing lack of government support for community energy schemes it is difficult to find any projects which are economically viable. The website is still live for info and we keep tabs on policy to try to identify when things may change.”

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