Renewable energy rollback or community energy fightback?

By Ed Mayo (UK)

All the signs are of a renewables rollback, a dramatic shredding of the framework that has developed over many years for clean energy.

Funding is being cut or removed – with no subsidy for larger solar PV, and now proposals by Government for a much meaner and faster shrinking Feed in Tariff, with (probably) no pre-accreditation.

On planning, the new directive from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in line with the manifesto pledge, will make it very hard to gain planning consent for onshore wind in most places, and impossible in others.

All this removes the much needed stability and assurance business needs in order to invest. It is shocking – back to the worst days of slot machine support for renewables.

There will be a wave of campaigns to challenge this U-turn in energy policy, both in the domestic context and with the global Paris Climate Change summit coming up which is trying to build momentum for action, with the U.S. and China heading at last in a somewhat more hopeful direction.

You can sign and promote the Parliament petition urging a rethink of the FIT Review: – or get engaged in Friends of the Earth’s action on solar.

Even so, the door is still open for community ownership under this government, as Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said recently: “I do not wish to stand in the way of local communities coming together to generate low-carbon electricity in a manner that is acceptable to and supported by them, including through small-scale wind capacity.”

Could there be a community energy fightback?

Today marks the third Community Energy Fortnight, with a major event in Oxford co-hosted by Community Energy England and Co-operative Energy. And it is good to remember that there are successes or reasons to be cheerful that we have seen in the last 12 months. These include:

– the adoption of the Shared Ownership Framework offers an opportunity for community ownership of renewables at scale, and, genuine partnership between public and renewables industry, perhaps vital for our community ownership aspirations, for the renewables industry, and for our energy transition as a whole
– some progress in smoothing grid connection for communities
-more local authorities becoming champions and partners
– Scotland continues to make big steps forward in terms of policy environment and deployment of community owned renewables. Scotland has a different and much more enabling planning framework, and Wales will soon be different as well.
– as a sector, with Co-operatives UK playing a big role, we successfully made the case for continued tax suport for community investment in renewables; opening up Social Investment Tax Relief for the sector and winning a better transition from the Enterprise Investment Scheme – no mean feat considering we were asked to contemplate a scenario without any tax relief back in summer 2014.
– Following the contentious October 2014 guidance from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) the sector came together to critique, lobby, and campaign, and we now see some significant improvements in FCA policy in its most recent consultation; in particular a move away from low and arbitrary caps on interest rates.

But there is still a way to go. In relation to the regulator:

– the FCA needs to recognise that members’ common environmental needs and aspirations are met in energy co-ops
– the FCA needs to take a fair, considered and transparent approach when dealing with established societies, and during registration
– we need the FCA to recognise and treat community benefit societies as mutual democratic social enterprises in a dynamic 21 century social economy.

And more widely, grid connection remains prohibitively complex and expensive for many communities – while direct supply and the true ‘prosumer’ energy co-op remains elusive.

So how do we move forward?

1. we need to restate the basic case for community ownership of our energy system, and for people to be partners in the renewable energy transition.

2. we need shared ownership to work at scale, so people own and benefit from renewable deployment on a big scale.

3. we need to secure from government support that brings in more of the public as partners in renewable energy generation, allowing the greatest possible carbon reduction, with most public support, and heading towards zero subsidy in the shortest possible time.

Community and co-operative ownership at scale we see in Denmark and Germany has to be our inspiration and our focus.

The fightback is on.

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