Is there a future for community energy groups?

Last night myself and fellow MHSG member Norman Beddington attended a meeting of London’s Community Energy groups.

Representatives from 20 community groups from across London gathered to discuss prospects for the future of community energy at a time of unprecedented retreat in ambition on renewable energy and energy efficiency by central government. The packed meeting at City Hall was chaired by Fiona Booth who leads the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s community energy team.

Lord Greg Barker, previously a Conservative minister at DECC was the keynote speaker. In a week when a leaked letter from DECC Secretary of State Amber Rudd revealed we are significantly off course from binding EU targets for renewable energy production, I was looking forward to hearing what Lord Barker had to say.

The meeting opened with a welcome from Patrick Freehily from the GLA. Patrick reminded us of the London Plan commitment to reduce carbon emissions in the capital by 60% by 2025. The London Plan drawn up in 2010 set out a target for decentralised energy to make up 25% of London’s energy by 2025. We seem to be some way from this target, with estimated decentralised energy (including district heat networks and solar power) currently making up just 5 percent of London’s energy.

Lord Barker now chairs the London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC). He started his presentation setting out the three areas of focus for LSDC – green innovation – “clean-tech”, the circular economy (re-use of materials) and energy use in the capital. He acknowledged that proposed feed-in-tariff reductions were too harsh, and that if he were still minister he would have made more gradual reductions. However he said that it was time for community energy groups to press the ‘refresh’ button. We need to look at new sources of funding, working more closely with the private sector and new business models. In his words “gone are the days when a few volunteers met in a cold church hall – you need to professionalise”.

I have to say that the audience was not impressed – Lord Barker was telling us to turn to private investors at a time of unparalleled nervousness about energy investment due to current government policy changes. It is difficult to see how any private sector firm is going to be interested in any London renewable energy scheme if feed in tariffs are reduced by 87%.

He did talk about the opportunities in the community renewables sector, specifically selling to energy users directly without going through one of the utility companies and also the opportunities offered by developments in batteries and energy storage. There is certainly potential here, but the government will need to act to facilitate ‘micro-grids’ and ‘private wires’ – the current arrangements certainly don’t make this easy.

At the end of his address, I asked him what the plans were for improving home energy efficiency in the light of the Green Deal’s demise. He gave no clear answer other than saying, sensibly, that he thought that there was a clear role for local authorities and local communities in delivering energy efficiency. This is concerning, given the leakiness of the older London property stock, and the fact that so many fall into the “hard-to-treat” category.

Following Lord Barker, several of the community groups presented their projects. It was inspiring stuff – certainly many hundreds of hours spent in those cold church halls delivering really successful projects. If Feed in Tariffs are slashed, as seems likely, groups will looks to other projects e.g raising funding for big LED light upgrades.

At the end of the meeting, community groups agreed that working together is essential and we will be collectively lobbying the mayoral candidates to deliver on the London plan for decentralised energy. I left the meeting feeling that, despite all of the obstacles being put in its way, community energy in London is here to stay.

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