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New Energy World embraces the whole energy industry as it connects and converges to address the decarbonisation challenge. It covers progress being made across the industry, from the dynamics under way to reduce emissions in oil and gas, through improvements to the efficiency of energy conversion and use, to cutting-edge initiatives in renewable and low carbon technologies.
Are community energy projects the best way to gain support for renewables?
4 min read
Most people agree that climate change is a problem that we should try to mitigate. But in Britain’s rural and coastal areas, there is often stark opposition to new renewable energy projects. Uniting communities and getting them to support clean energy projects is crucial for meeting net zero targets. Gemma La Guardia, Consultant and Research Associate at Guidehouse ES&I reports.
In the UK, a BEIS survey conducted in 2021 found that up to 80% of people were ‘worried about climate change’ to varying extents. However, projects that support low carbon electricity and renewable projects such as the proposed ‘East Anglia GREEN’ power line are currently encountering fierce opposition from local groups.
The line will run from Norwich to deliver energy generated at East Coast offshore wind projects to London. It may also connect the proposed nuclear facility Sizewell C to the wider UK electricity grid. But it is set to cut down trees and endanger local wildlife as it winds its way through a series of historic villages.
If the UK is to dramatically scale up renewable capacity, we need to understand and acknowledge the needs of these outlying communities while working to integrate them into the state’s broader decarbonisation journey. Many projects negatively impact communities by using farmland or impacting nature tourism in the area. More efforts therefore need to be made to make national decarbonisation goals recognisably beneficial to rural communities.
Until now, there has been little governmental support for community energy projects in the UK, despite a raft of decarbonisation bills and strategies that have been set out in the past year. The UK’s ‘Build Back Greener’ and ‘Levelling Up’ plans both make vague mention to the potential that renewable energies and re-skilling can bring to underserved communities.
The ‘Energy Security Strategy’ has also disappointed community campaigners due to a lack of ring-fenced funding for community energy projects, and a lack of targets for onshore wind, which is deemed to be the cheapest and most reliable renewable energy source in the UK.
Despite the dearth of governmental support, community and commercial projects aimed at increasing renewables penetration are gaining traction in the UK. Recently, Octopus Energy announced that it would allow households with solar panels to sell energy back to the grid, at a fixed rate of 7.5p per kWh, or a variable rate which matches half-hourly rates with the next day’s wholesale prices.
Meanwhile in Bristol, the residents of Lawrence West, a deprived housing estate, fought against the English moratorium on onshore wind and won £4mn in funding to build a single, 4.2 MW onshore wind turbine. They will sell £100,000 of electricity back to the grid per year, providing extra income to members of the estate. More examples of these abound, though they are part of a piecemeal mosaic of individual projects without a common overarching goal.
Conversely, governments across the globe are investing heavily in community energy projects. For example, indigenous communities in Canada are taking a ‘whole community’ approach to renewables.
The Canadian experience is slightly different to the UK’s. Canada has vast expanses of land out of eyesight of residential areas, and Indigenous communities often own the land on which they live. However, many Indigenous people have been reliant on diesel generators which are noisy and polluting. They are also some of the most disadvantaged communities in Canada, with the highest rates of unemployment. As with many coastal and rural communities in the UK, they live precariously close to the poverty line.
Nevertheless, with the help of the Canadian government, they are now leading the push for Canadian renewables. By hosting renewable projects on their land, the Indigenous communities retain on average a 45% equity stake in projects ranging from small community microgrids to large utility-scale renewable projects. The have a say on the direction, maintenance and custodianship of the project. Renewable projects brought in CAD $295mn in revenue to Indigenous communities in 2020 alone.
A supportive government has also been key to their transition. The Canadian government has earmarked over CAD$300mn to reduce Indigenous and rural dependence on diesel generators. Projects vary from implementation and training for Indigenous peoples to enter the workforce as renewables specialists, as well as training which targets women and inter-generational learning. A report by Indigenous Clean Energy has estimated that the results of these projects will bring in an estimated CAD $1.5bn from employment and contracting over the next 10 years.
In the UK, clean energy projects will gain the approval of communities if they can be shown to improve livelihoods, thanks to its overwhelmingly pro-renewables civil society. To achieve the UK’s climate change goals, there needs to be better government funding and support for community energy projects. There also need to be tangible benefits for communities besides job creation, such as equity stakes in renewable projects and a concentrated, localised effort to re-skill the people from the area in which the projects are being built, as opposed to bringing in workers from other parts of the country.
The UK is now at a crossroads where we have the unique opportunity to design the energy systems of the future in a way that leaves no one behind. Putting communities at the centre of this journey will ensure this happens.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.