Lessons from Germany for sluggish UK community energy strategy

The community energy model is well established in Europe, particularly Germany, and the UK’s sluggish renewables strategy could learn lessons from there.

In our first blog post on the theme Community energy strategy draws power from challenger supplier, we described the efforts to ignite the local-scale renewables revolution. There is a gap between intention and action in the UK, which is why progress is so slow.

In Germany, more than half of electricity and gas is provided by local municipalities or other community organisations. Currently the UK local energy contribution is negligible.

We could learn from one leading German example – Schönau Power Supply, in Schönau im Schwarzwald, Germany. It provides electricity from renewable energy sources to the German electricity grid.

The company was founded by Ursula Sladek and gets much of its energy from small local energy producers. The genesis of the organisation and its operation offer frameworks for community groups in the UK.

Ursula Sladek and partners raised around 3 million Euros through a nationwide campaign to enable them to take ownership of the local power grid in the 1990s, establishing Schönau Power Supply as a community operated energy provider committed to a sustainable energy future.

Renewable energy

The company has a decentralised approach to power generation and makes use of renewable energy sources, including solar, hydroelectric, wind power, and biomass. The company is operated as a cooperative; while the cooperative owners receive dividends, the majority of the profits are re-invested in renewable energy sources. Wikipedia advises that the company’s total revenues were 67 million Euros in 2009.

Along with hydropower operations, solar panels, some wind turbines, power is generated by around 20 washing-machine-size co-generation plants in people’s homes that produce both heat for the home and electricity for the grid.

The company has always actively promoted responsible energy consumption, which the community structures in the UK also see as essential, enabling changes in behaviour as well as a range of other activities.

Templates for community energy in the UK include:

  • Solar and insulation grant schemes
  • Access to energy efficiency and promotion of take-up
  • Bulk electricity purchase from existing renewable electricity providers and resale
  • Energy efficiency surveys
  • Household home energy ratings
  • Local renewables map
  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency events
  • Advice and assistance with funding for insulation/efficiency measures
  • Funding for small-scale renewable energy
  • Larger scale projects for local energy generation such as wind turbines, solar farms, water hydro, combined heat and power (CHP), tidal and river current turbines, coppice wood projects, sewage and gas projects
  • Local electricity and heat distribution networks.

In this context, it is a bit deflating to read new academic research that shows how community-led sustainable energy projects are being hindered by gaps in the provision of Government support.

The research team from UEA and the University of Sussex looked at 12 small-scale projects which aim to reduce energy consumption in local communities across the UK. These included a solar panel project 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.

Grid connections

The research makes it even more important for Greg Barker, Climate Change Minister, to honour his pledge in the past month to make it easier for community-scale renewables projects to start development, after promising to take steps to tackle delays to grid connections.

At a recent public energy event, Mr Barker said was looking to Ofgem and local grid operators to speed up the time it takes for new renewables projects to secure grid connections. He is “impatient” to see more community-owned clean energy projects and as such was committed to lowering some of the barriers faced by community-scale projects.

The academic report, “A grassroots sustainable energy niche? Reflections on community energy in the UK”, was funded by the Energy and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and EDF Energy.

The report looks at how initiatives such as community-owned solar PV sites, wind turbines and hydro-electricity generators, as well as energy-saving projects, could make big differences in tackling climate change.

The academic team advises that better policy support is still needed to get grassroots environmental projects off the ground, even with a ‘Big Society’ ethos informing part of the legislative programme and the new Community Energy Strategy.

Flexible policy support

The report says: “Evaluation and performance monitoring really needs to value these different kinds of results, and not simply focus on the amounts of energy produced.

“What is really needed is flexible and tailored policy support at all levels. While technical advice is available through handbooks and toolkits, there are some really critical support needs in particular – from decision making help to financial models and emotional stamina to keep going in challenging times.

“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.”

Let’s hope that this research helps to stimulate a big movement this year in the sector. Any initiative that helps relieve pressure on energy bills is always welcome and should bring benefits while the most effective way to support these is by promoting energy and water saving solutions such as LED lighting, eco showers, eco taps and tap aerators.

At SaveMoneyCutCarbon, the team are keeping a close eye on developments and will be active in the Community Energy Fortnight 2014 from September 13-28th.



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