Community energy in uncertain times

Green energy could flourish in post-Brexit Britain, says long-time community energy campaigner and co-founder of Sharenergy, Jon Halle

For those of us who are working to establish community energy in the UK, the Brexit vote is a distraction within which we need to find opportunity.

If we can learn anything from the vote which shocked even those that fought for it, it’s that people want to be involved in the decisions that affect them; decisions like how their energy is produced and used.

It’s now been 19 years since Baywind Energy Co-operative, the UK’s first community-owned renewable project, was formed. Over that period, we have steadily built up a movement of installations of every major renewable technology type — from biomass heating to wind, hydroelectric and solar — all developed at a local level and putting ownership into the hands of ordinary people.

Energy co-ops around the UK, from Cornwall to Shetland, have thousands of members, and there is scarcely a town without a group of people planning new low-carbon generation in their back yard.

The recent vote to leave the EU threatens even more political inaction on climate change. The UK’s current energy policy is hopelessly broken already — there is a large generation hole that will only deepen as we increasingly move towards electric transport. Our government’s plan has been to plug the gap with the Hinkley Point nuclear plant — by some estimates the most expensive building project in the world.

Energy co-ops around the UK, from Cornwall to Shetland, have thousands of members, and there is scarcely a town without a group of people planning new low-carbon generation in their back yard.

The retreat from Europe surely makes this beleaguered project unlikely to come to pass, but the prospects of replacing it with a different behemoth are slight: which commercial investor or foreign power now has the confidence to make 40-year investments in the UK?

The answer is to make better use of our existing resources. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of low-carbon generation. The growth of the community energy movement shows that the public will embrace the opportunity to invest in wind co-ops such as the Small Wind Co-op (set up by Sharenergy), which will install turbines on farmland in Scotland and Wales. It will offer members the chance to use the electricity in their own homes while also getting a decent rate of interest on the funds they invest.

While conventional financial markets are in turmoil, alternative investment models such as community energy are easy to understand and access by anyone with a few hundred pounds. Driven by low-cost online models such as peer-to-peer lending, people are able to invest directly rather than through banks or funds.

This is driving a huge upsurge in positive investment — approaching £100 million — allowing people to invest their money directly into an organisation on par with their beliefs, that is under their control, and that offers a better financial return than traditional sources. Community energy’s core appeal is that it produces an everyday, tangible product; energy is a resource everybody needs.

The silver lining

It is an article of faith that EU membership has been a good thing for the UK’s environment. We have certainly benefited from the leadership of other member states in improving our own environmental protection laws and in setting targets for sustainable energy production.

While this remains true, there may be some positive outcomes from leaving. Tariffs aimed at protecting EU solar panel producers have added 10–20 per cent to the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in the UK, but have almost completely failed to stop panel manufacture moving to China. The removal of the tariffs will bring solar very close to being viable without subsidy in the UK.

Plus, 40 years of EU membership still leaves the UK with only 8.3 per cent of our energy coming from renewables. With the very welcome passing of the fifth carbon budget a few days after the referendum, the UK has committed itself to a path that will need new policies to support renewable energy — pared-back, but reliable subsidies targeted at the most effective technology and comprehensive support for research and development.

Above all, the referendum made one thing clear: people in the UK are sick of top-down institutions and are ready for grassroots change. The co-operative movement has a timely offering that is stable, democratic, accountable, and that presents a long-term vision that blends environmental sustainability with social justice. We need to take action together to built the future UK we really want to see.

Local clean energy

The easiest way is to join a community energy group and use your money to help transform the UK’s energy system for better. There are more than 20 groups with current share offers in the UK and signing up to join typically only takes a few minutes.

Some current community energy share offers are listed below:





South East London Community Energy

Jon Halle is a co-founder of Sharenergy, which has worked on over 30 successful community energy projects in the UK. He has worked in community energy since 2003 and was co-named Community Energy Champion in 2015.

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