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Community energy

A green opportunity for Big Local areas

April 2014

The growth of community energy projects over the past decade has been huge, with only two or three projects in 2002 compared with over 500 currently and thousands more in development.

In March 2014 we held a community energy event for people in Big Local areas. Throughout the day, we heard about the diverse forms of community energy projects that Big Local areas may be able to invest in. It is beyond the scope of this case study to go into all of these possibilities but further details of the event and presentations are available here.

The Government is behind the community energy movement and has recently invested in this too. Its target is to increase the amount of community energy produced by a multiple of 50 by 2020, so there will be many opportunities to start projects in this area.

There are some inspiring examples of successful community energy projects already out there that Big Local areas could take advantage of and this case study aims to provide some inspiration and ideas about how to get started.

What is community energy?

Community energy refers to a whole range of initiatives which either deliver energy efficiency, or provide investment in renewable energy at a local level. These are most likely to include:

  • local projects working to generate or save energy, community-owned or managed, and where local people benefit from the power produced or saved
  • renewable energy schemes, the majority of which focus on solar power.

What can community energy do for us?

Big Local areas can gain a wide range of benefits from investing in community energy projects which include:

  • improvement in the energy efficiency of community buildings leading to higher usage of them
  • reductions in fuel poverty for residents
  • the creation of more comfortable local homes
  • the creation of jobs, volunteering opportunities and apprenticeships
  • social investment opportunities
  • a sustainable source of income for the community
  • the development of new partnerships
  • a transition to renewable energy sources
  • increasing independence.

Renewable energy in inner London

Repowering London co-produce community-owned renewable energy projects. The renewable energy co-operatives it creates are owned and managed by the local community. Its aim as an organisation is to help develop communities’ resilience and wellbeing by:

  • helping people invest in their community and gain financially through socially responsible investment
  • promoting energy efficiency through education and home energy audits
  • providing apprenticeships and work experience for local people.

Repowering London’s first project Brixton Energy Solar 1 was the UK’s first inner-city, co-operatively owned renewable energy project on a social housing estate. The project involved the installation of a solar power station right across the entire roof of Elmore House on Loughborough Estate in Brixton. Funds were raised for this through a community share offer and 103 investors raised £58,000 in less than a month, with most of these investors living locally.

Opportunities for young people

Repowering London works closely with both professional installers and local community groups to carry out its projects. It also ensures there are work experience and internship opportunities for local people. Internships are particularly targeted at young people and the unemployed. Repowering London also host energy efficiency and solar panel workshops for other community members.

Re-investing profits into energy efficiency

The investment in community solar projects generates renewable energy. This energy can then be sold to the national grid in the knowledge that the profit earned will be used to directly benefit the local community, as well as to generate a return for investors through their community shares. A percentage of the profit goes to energy efficiency education to help tackle fuel poverty. Money is used to help people locally understand changes they can make to reduce their energy bills. For example, draught proofing their homes and switching to the most appropriate energy tariffs.

Green Community Buildings

Green Community Buildings are based in the North of England. They help community groups to focus on:

  • cost reduction
  • sustainable income generation.

Cost reductions

Energy audits of community buildings show that a 15% average energy reduction can be achieved from simple and low-cost measures. The energy reduction may be as much as 60% from larger projects and the benefits are likely to go beyond just saving money – in one of the community centres which Green Community Buildings worked on, the use of it went up from 50% to 80%.

Sustainable income generation

Green Community Buildings will also fit renewable energy sources to buildings, which can further reduce energy bills. Most projects are likely to focus on solar power, often by fitting panels to the roof of a community building. Solar panels can be used to provide heating, or to heat water. This is especially useful for any buildings which are used throughout the day.

In more rural areas larger-scale improvements are possible from using whole fields for solar panels or, if there is sufficient investment, even purchasing a wind turbine. Each one of these can power around 300 homes! These larger-scale projects can provide an income for the community, provided the initial investment can be found.

Financing community energy projects

Pure Leapfrog is a social investment organisation which specialises in producing professional support to community energy projects in the UK. It provides specialist support organising the finances of a community energy project and there are many different ways that this can work. One possibility is setting up a community benefit society, which can offer community shares for a specific community energy project. Pure Leapfrog estimates that for every £1 invested in the community energy projects it supports, there is £5 worth of community benefit produced.

How can we get started?

While some of the more technical aspects of community energy projects can seem daunting, most hurdles that can be overcome once you find the right people to work with. And with the ambition of community energy growing by 50 times in six years there will be plenty of opportunities.
Here are some ideas that can help you get started with a community energy project:

  1. Find out about any community energy organisations nearby and get in touch with them.
  2. Start a local community energy group that can take forward ideas and consult with the wider Big Local area.
  3. Think about all the opportunities in your Big Local area. Where are the flat roofs and who owns them? Might they be willing to have some solar panels on their roof to benefit the community?
  4. Identify partners you would like to work with – this might include the council if you need any planning permission.
  5. Refine your ideas into some defined projects with the help of the partners you are working with.
  6. Sell the benefits of community energy to your Big Local area and get support to work out the best way of funding your community energy project.

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