A brighter long term future for community energy in the UK?

by Tim Braunholtz-Speight

Despite the short term crisis in UK community energy, the changing energy system may offer new opportunities for greater citizen participation in the longer term. This blog outlines some of these, and introduces my project’s ongoing work looking to the future of community energy.

Looking long term

Since the 2015-16 cuts to the renewable energy Feed-In Tariff (FITS) and other support mechanisms, times have been tough in the UK’s community energy sector. Many new or smaller groups have seen their projects stall; a few established organisations are building what they can while FITS still exists; everyone is busy trying to work out what to do next.

Step back and look longer term, however, and the picture is different. Energy folk talk about a future of decentralised renewable generation, and a much greater focus on ‘consumers’ – or should that simply be ‘citizens’ – as active players in the energy system. Surely that’s what community energy is all about?

So the UKERC Financing Community Energy research project that I work on is moving from studying the sector as it is now, to putting together a positive vision of the long term future for UK community energy. We want to make a vision that combines practical realism with inspiration and a sense of possibility. To do this we’re looking at what the future business models of community energy could be – in other words, what will community energy groups do, who for, and how will they organise themselves and obtain the resources they need to do it?

One future: community energy – community data?

As a step in this work, I and colleagues attended the BIEE biennial research conference ‘Consumers at the heart of the energy system?’ in September, where one of the big themes was smart energy systems and data.

What’s the connection? Well, if we are to rely more on renewable electricity, whose generation is ‘intermittent’ i.e. it can’t be totally controlled or predicted, then the ‘consumption’ of electricity has to be more flexible to match. The ability to deliver this matching becomes more and more significant. This can be done through having lots of gas-powered capacity on standby (the present day); through batteries; or through being able to get households and businesses to shift their patterns of energy use. Understanding and managing consumer demand patterns is where the big data comes in. And with a shift to electric transport expected to increase household electricity demand substantially, this is a big deal.

Some energy companies seem to think their business will become as much about data, as about energy. But with various data scandals on everyone’s minds, is there a role for community energy in being the trusted managers of this data – capturing the financial value of demand management and flexibility, and ensuring the digital divide doesn’t become an energy divide too?

‘Community’ can be a double-edged thing, of course – one person’s ‘support network’ is someone else’s ‘nosy neighbour’. Research by Emilia Melville and others notes that privacy concerns are indeed keenly felt by participants in one local energy management trial. But they also find that there is appetite for local action too, and that it’s quite possible to design data systems to protect individual privacy.

And it needn’t stop at energy. The same cables that link up smart meters can also be used to carry broadband, for example; the town of Summerside in Canada is already doing this with a municipal services company (as noted by the Scottish Government’s 2015 Community Energy Policy Statement).

Community – consumers – voters?

But there’s more changing than just data systems. With a few exceptions, community energy groups have not been able to sell the energy they generate to local consumers. Changes in tech and regulation – and projects such as Energy Local and Mull ACCESS  -may change that. Membership of an energy coop could be based simply on paying your electricity bill, without having to invest in community shares. The distinction between the cooperative model – where membership is based on buying community shares, and the community development trust model – where membership is based on local residence, could blur or dissolve entirely.

A further force for change is the growing engagement of local authorities in the UK energy system, as others in RIPPLES have explored. Will the UK be more devolved, more federal, in decades to come? Will we see more community energy organisations partnering with municipal companies to create a ‘civic’ energy sector? The beginnings of this are already visible, from Plymouth and Bristol to Edinburgh and many points in between.

It’s not inevitable: but another energy system is possible

And there’s more. Community energy activists are long used to navigating choppy seas and shifting currents, and ideas of new ways to do community energy abound: renewable electricity producing hydrogen; EV charging; heat networks; national solar coops; new sorts of energy networks connecting localities (who says community energy must be 100% local? not RIPPLES!);  energy services companies; offshore wind farm coops

Some of these actually exist on the ground (though not all in the UK); some are being piloted, with what funding there is; others are as yet only on paper. All of them, and many more – far too many to list in one blog post – may be possibilities; but they are not inevitabilities.

In short, it’s all to play for. My project is not trying to pretend we can predict what will happen. What we do want to do is to create a clearer sense of what could happen; what the potential prize to be won is. We hope this will increase interest – even excitement! – from the supporters community energy needs in energy, government, finance and beyond. And, last but not least, give the UK’s community energy activists some reasons to feel cheerful.