Green-energy community projects need better government backing

Brighton Energy Co-op have set up community renewable energy projects, including installing solar panels to create electricity.

Community-led sustainable energy projects are not taken seriously enough by the government, say University of Sussex researchers involved in a new report.

Published today (12 May 2014), the report looks at how initiatives such as community-owned solar panels, wind turbines and hydro-electricity generators, as well as energy-saving projects, could make big differences in tackling climate change.

But while a ‘Big Society’ ethos has formed part of the legislative programme for the coalition government, and the UK Government’s new Community Energy Strategy has been a big step forward in terms of supporting the emerging sustainable energy sector, researchers say better policy support is still needed to get grassroots environmental projects off the ground.

Members of the Sussex Energy Group worked with the environmental scientists at the University of East Anglia to look at 12 small-scale projects that aim to reduce energy consumption in local communities across the UK.

The projects included a solar panel initiative in Brighton, an eco-home development in Bristol, hydro-electricity generation in Cumbria, and a community island buy-out on the Isle of Gigha in Scotland.

The researchers also carried out interviews with the people responsible for getting community projects off the ground. They found a great deal of community enthusiasm for small-scale innovative projects, but the resources available were not always enough to really help them flourish.

Ms Mari Martiskainen, who worked on the report with Sussex Energy Group colleagues Dr Sabine Hielscher and Dr Adrian Smith, said: “While there is plenty of technical advice through handbooks and toolkits, those involved in projects also need help with understanding how to manage the finances of their projects – and how to keep going when times become difficult.

“Community energy has a part to play in a sustainable energy future for the UK, but it demands joined-up policy support, spanning community development, social inclusion, regeneration, energy and climate change.”

Lead researcher Dr Gill Seyfang, from UEA’s school of Environmental Sciences, said: “The combined pressure of global climate change and threats to energy security mean that we will have to think more radically about sustainable energy.

“The Community Energy Strategy has adopted many of our recommendations for supporting mentoring and intermediary organisations, but much more still needs to be done. A huge priority is for government to recognise that many community energy projects are aiming to tackle fuel poverty and develop stronger communities, as well as generating or saving energy. Evaluation and performance monitoring really needs to value these different kinds of results, and not simply focus on the amounts of energy produced.”

This research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and EDF Energy.

‘A grassroots sustainable energy niche? Reflections on community energy in the UK’ is published in the journal Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions on Monday, May 12.

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Monday, 12 May 2014