Harnessing the power of community-run renewable energy in the UK

Article and photos by Jen Wilton
Originally published by Contributoria

Westmill Wind Farm hosts 5 towering turbines on the Oxfordshire/ Wiltshire boder in the south of England
Westmill Wind Farm hosts 5 towering turbines on the Oxfordshire/ Wiltshire boder in the south of England

“Community energy is happening almost everywhere in the world,” says Agamemnon Otero, CEO of Repowering London, an organisation that supports communities to set up renewable energy projects in the capital. He helped establish the first community-run solar energy co-ops in London, located south of the river in Brixton. He now works with a number of different groups across the sprawling metropolis.

Otero thinks people are increasingly turning to renewables as they see old forms of energy devastate the environment. As steadily-rising energy bills impact on households across the UK, people are looking for alternatives.

Last year in the UK, 5.2 percent of total energy consumed came from renewable sources, up almost one-quarter on the previous year. More than half of electricity generated from renewables comes from wind turbines, while solar panels account for a small, but growing, share of energy production.

However the UK lags behind most European Union (EU) countries in terms of renewable energy production, ranking third worst ahead of Luxembourg and Malta. While the EU has set a target to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, some countries have already met their individual goals. Over half of Sweden’s energy already comes from renewable sources, while Denmark ambitiously plans to abandon fossil fuels by 2050.

The community advantage

Over the past five years, more than 5,000 groups have taken steps to set up community-run energy projects in the UK. The projects range from energy production initiatives, including solar, wind and hydroelectric, to collective efforts to reduce energy consumption.

Several community-led energy co-ops have sprung up in London, one of Europe’s most populated cities with over eight million residents. With such a heaving mass of people space is always an issue, so some green-minded residents are heading to the rooftops to harness the power of the sun.

One of London’s newest solar co-ops was first mooted during a public meeting held last September. Residents of Banister House, a council estate located in the east London borough of Hackney, gathered to discuss the merits of installing solar panels on the estate’s roofs. Community group Hackney Energy subsequently formed and they have been instrumental in moving the project forward.

The first step was to get the community on board. A group of volunteers and interns knocked on hundreds of doors to spread the word. “Eighty-five percent of people surveyed said they would support the installation of community-owned solar on the roof,” says Hackney Energy Chair Millie Darling, “and the other fifteen percent said maybe. Nobody said no.”

The co-op has recruited 15 interns, aged from 14 to 21, who are paid to work on the project for around six months. Fifteen-year-old intern Daniel Richie Lena says he wanted to get involved in the project so that he could do something to benefit the neighbourhood and to help people save money on energy bills.

Banister House Solar Co-op interns learn how to screen print promotional t-shirts
Banister House Solar Co-op interns and Millie Darling from Hackney Energy (right) learn how to screen print promotional t-shirts

The interns have learnt a range of practical new skills, relating to co-op management, finances and media, but they will also help install solar panels when the time comes. “It has changed the way I think about energy use,” says 21-year-old intern Victoria Omobuwajo. “I didn’t think you could power a house from solar panels, let alone a whole estate. There is so much potential out there for people to use solar energy.”

Once the internships have finished Omobuwajo would like to install solar panels for other projects and to spread the word about the benefits of renewable energy. “We’re starting with Hackney, but hopefully the rest of London will jump on board as well. You never know!” she says. Lena also thinks the internship will improve his future prospects. “This will help me develop my analysis skills,” he says. “I want to be an economist or a financial analyst.”

Darling believes the internships are a good way to provide work experience for young people in the area. “That is obviously really important when youth clubs and stuff are being cut,” she says. “Providing opportunities for young people is really important, especially paid opportunities.”

The community also benefits from the group’s energy efficiency work, like the draught-busting workshops where people receive free advice on how to cut energy bills. “It’s not really enough just to talk about renewable energy generation,” says Darling. “It’s also about cutting energy use.”

In September 2014, the co-op’s public share offer will be launched to raise funds to move to the next stage – installing panels. “The plan is to install 120 kilowatts of solar energy,” Darling explains. “We are going to be raising £150,000.” Residents of Banister House can buy shares in the project from as little as £50, while non-residents can invest from £250. Co-op members will get an annual return on their investment, while 20 percent of profits will go to a community benefit fund to cover energy efficiency and youth work.

An alternative to fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are the main source of energy in our global economy, but burning oil, coal and gas significantly contributes to global warming. While the UK government has been slow to introduce sustainable energy policies, some resourceful communities are already putting alternatives in place.

In 2013, UK energy company Cuadrilla was slammed by protests for plans to use the controversial hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technique to extract oil from beneath the south-eastern village of Balcombe. Protesters were concerned about the potential for fracking to pollute groundwater, generate toxic waste and create earthquakes. The small English town became internationally famous virtually overnight.

Local resident Jackie Emery is a volunteer for the new community solar co-op Repower Balcombe, established in the wake of last year’s fracking protests. “You’ve got people saying, ‘Well what are you going to do when the lights go out?’” recounts Emery. “Well, there are other alternatives. We don’t have to suck every tiny drop of fossil fuel out of the ground.”

Repower Balcombe’s mission is “to take responsibility for meeting our own energy needs in a way that does not contribute to climate change or harm the prospects of future generations.” The group plans to do this by generating enough solar power to offset the electricity the village takes from the national grid. One of the first sites slated to have panels installed is the local primary school, so the students can learn about renewable energy.

“We haven’t had any backlash or people being overtly hostile, whereas fracking was quite a different matter,” says Emery. She attributes the difference to the solar project being “very much owned by the people in the village.”

Income from the co-op will mainly stay in the local area, an important difference with larger commercial energy companies. The community is set to gain in other ways, too. “We’re going to be setting up a community benefit fund, so any additional profit will go back into the community and the shareholders and members will have the choice of what happens with that money,” says Repower Balcombe Communications Manager Joe Nixon.

Nixon has lived in Balcombe for the past two years, so lived through the fracking controversy. “I feel very proud to be involved in [the co-op] and proud to be working with the community and actually having something positive coming out of a very negative thing that has happened,” he says.

Long-term benefits

Community-owned renewable energy can boost the local economy for decades to come. Research by Renewable UK shows that for every megawatt of energy produced by a community wind farm, £100,000 stays in the host community during the lifetime of the project.

The Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative, located near Swindon in southern England, is housed on a working organic farm, where crops grow alongside five towering wind turbines. The long turbine blades gracefully cartwheel in response to steady gusts of wind. An extensive field of solar panels, interspersed with wild flowers to attract bees to the farm, has been installed nearby.

“I believe in using nature’s unending free gifts as fuel to manufacture electricity,” says Westmill visitor coordinator Penny Hockley. “Community ownership encourages knowledge, enthusiasm and provides a dividend on one’s investment.”

Westmill solar panels occupy an old World War II airstrip, so do not take up fertile land
Westmill solar panels occupy an old World War II airstrip, so do not take up fertile land on the farm

The wind project took 12 years of planning before the turbines were finally erected and started generating energy in 2008. Now in its sixth year, the turbines produce approximately 12 gigawatt-hours of energy per year, enough to power 3,500 homes, which equates to around £1 million of income.

The Westmill Solar Park was installed later and for the first year of its life was the result of a joint venture between two commercial energy companies. In 2012, Westmill Solar became the world’s largest community-owned solar park after funds were successfully raised to acquire the project. The wind turbines and solar panels are estimated to last more than 20 years, meaning they will keep providing income to the region for some time to come.

Learning from experience

While community energy projects offer a variety of tangible benefits, hard work and dedication are vital in the early stages. “There are just so many hoops to jump through,” says Darling from Hackney Energy, “like planning permission and sorting out the lease, talking to the council and doing community organising.”

Repowering London head Otero cites the biggest obstacles as “the forever moving landscape of energy markets, council politics and community politics.” He says he has seen government policy around the feed-in tariff change 14 times since he first started doing this work.

“You have to be very stubborn,” says Repower Balcombe founder Nixon. “Keep chipping away at it all the time. You’ll have lots of failures, but there will be successes along the way too.”

“Renewable energy is the way forward for communities,” Nixon adds. “The more people that do it, the more the government will listen, and the infrastructure for the projects will be easier for people to run in the future.”

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