Community energy schemes are a growing phenomenon in the decentralised energy model, with renewables offering an affordable shared opportunity for a group of people to assume some control over their current and future energy supply needs.
The concept appears to have been pioneered primarily in Great Britain, with the first such scheme apparently dating back over 25 years.
Details are hard to come by but the association Co-operatives UK lists more than 250 coops with the tagline energy.
An October 2016 report from renewable supplier Good Energy states there were more than 550 community schemes active at that time.
The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s community energy webpage states that at least 5,000 community groups were undertaking energy initiatives in the last five years but these also include other activities beyond energy supply such as smart grid pilots and collective switching.
Alongside the growth of community schemes has emerged another group of players, essentially consultancies to support the development and growth of these schemes.
One of these, Energy4All (not to be confused with Sustainable Energy for All – SE4All, which is driving universal access to electricity by 2030), claims 22 cooperative schemes with well over 13,000 members, along with “many other schemes” in development.
Among these is the first British cooperative to own wind turbines, Baywind wind farm in Cumbria, which was initiated in 1997.
Now Baywind, which has over 1,200 members and currently runs one turbine generating an average 5.3GWh, has joined in a new initiative with two other coops, High Winds Community Energy Society and Energy Prospects. Together the three coops have acquired a commercial wind farm, Mean Moor in Cumbria.
Mean Moor comprises three 2.3MW turbines and is close to High Winds’ operation of two 2.3MW turbines. These in turn are on land previously occupied by five earlier generation, now decommissioned turbines of Baywind.
Energy Prospects is a community wind farm funding cooperative.
The crowdfunded renewables investment company Thrive Renewables, also is involved in providing interim finance to the project.
According to a statement, this purchase demonstrates the ability of the community sector to operate in the business world, and reflects the appetite for greater community ownership of renewable energy as an end in itself.
“We are delighted that we have been able to acquire the wind farm at Mean Moor,” say David Eastlick (HighWinds), Richard Scott (Baywind) and Rod Blunden (Energy Prospects) in a joint chairmen’s statement.
“It is important that coops work together and show communities that individual people can make a difference to climate change.”
Portworthy Community Energy, near Stratford-upon-Avon in central England, is another local operator that is bringing commercially operating renewables into community hands – and indeed, was set up for this purpose.
With support from UK fund manager Social and Sustainable Capital (SASC), Portworthy is acquiring three solar farms with a combined capacity of 14.7MW at a cost of £6.2m.
With these solar farms, which feature co-located battery storage, Portworthy is claimed to be the largest community owned energy company by generating capacity in Britain, with the ability to provide enough electricity to power around 4,500 homes.
Over its 20-year lifetime, the initiative is expected to deliver £4.8m in local community benefits.
SASC worked with crowdfund provider Mongoose Energy to provide the capital and it will be repaid via a series of community share and bond offers to be hosted on Mongoose’s crowd platform.
Coop energy development
Community and cooperative schemes come in various shapes and sizes and activities they undertake.
For example, in addition to the Mean Moor initiative, some other recent achievements of coops that have developed under the Energy4All umbrella include the installation of a 12kWh battery system to store solar energy at a school in Sussex. Another is the raising of £660,000 for construction of a new hydro electricity generation project near Arrochar in Scotland by the Arrochar Community Hydro Society.
Co-operative Energy, part of the Midcounties Co-operative based in Warwick, has 400,000 customers. Currently the supplier has 40 power purchase agreements in place with community energy generators, up from nine in 2014. It now wants to increase that to 60 over the next three years.
With the continuing move to renewables, and the ease of participation in crowdfunded projects, the number of community initiatives will continue to grow.
According to the Good Energy report quoting UK government and other data, such schemes could be supplying one million homes in Britain by 2020 while by 2050 almost half of the country’s energy supply could be from prosumers.
However, the success of community energy ultimately depends on having a simple, stable and long-term framework for the sector, the report states.
Among other actions Good Energy recommends that community schemes should be given material weight in the planning system and that developers should look for shared ownership opportunities. Regulatory barriers should be reduced and innovation encouraged around flexibility and demand side management.
“Community energy projects unite people and organisations to act on local energy challenges and opportunities through local equity, participation and control,” says Good Energy CEO Juliet Davenport. “Projects deliver local benefits, while increasing awareness and understanding of energy issues.”