Solar at Heart of Community Energy

STA joins Taskforce to increase community ownership --- Essential to ensure FITs support growth of community solar--- New 'Marketplace' launched to link communities to renewables industry

The STA today welcomed many elements of DECC's Community Energy Strategy [1], which recognises the potential to use renewable energy to fundamentally transform ownership in the energy sector. Solar power can work in all locations, rural and urban, and the strategy recognises that solar & wind dominate community energy projects. Solar is a modular technology so it works as efficiently on a domestic house as it does on a school, large office block or on a solar farm. This means that barriers to entry to the solar industry are much lower than for conventional energy. This is why internationally, investors in solar go far beyond commercial energy companies to include everyday people, local government, not-for-profits, businesses, schools and other public buildings, social enterprises and communities. Solar thermal can also be scaled up to deliver heat to large buildings and through community heat networks.

STA Head of External Affairs Leonie Greene said:

"The public are very concerned by the lack of competition in our energy markets and poll after poll shows they back renewable energy. So it's great to see the UK Government recognise the vast potential for everyday communities to directly own renewable energy and by doing so, to break open our consolidated electricity sector. International experience shows it is bottom-up investment by everyday people and organisations that can really drive renewables. At the same time this gives people real ownership of the energy they depend on, and increases support for local schemes.

"No technology democratises ownership of the power sector better than solar. The UK's solar power output is already owned by half a million solar households and by new independent companies outside the ‘Big 6' utilities, as well as a few thousand businesses and communities. It is clear that solar is already delivering a revolution in ownership, as well as in clean power generation. The further scope for community ownership of solar across the UK is tremendous. However, in practical terms, fulfilling this exciting vision does require Government to ensure the Feed-in Tariff can support the take-off of community-scale schemes." [2]

The STA is working closely with DECC to resolve barriers to the take-off of community-scale solar under the existing Feed-in Tariffs (FITs). The STA will also be joining the Secretary of State's new Taskforce to enable greater community ownership of larger solar schemes. Demonstrating the vast potential for industry, local authorities and communities to collectively invest, one of the largest solar farms under development in the UK at 42MW is in Swindon and is a joint project between Swindon Commercial Services Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Swindon Borough Council, and the Science Museum Group. The scheme will also offer local residents ownership of shares.

Leonie Greene said:

"We want to see as much community-driven solar as possible, but it is starting from a very low base in the UK and faces many barriers, including cultural novelty. Perhaps the most exciting potential is for industry partnerships with local communities to accelerate progress."

To enable exactly this, the Renewable Energy Association is launching its Renewables Marketplace today. The new online platform enables community groups, as well as private and public sector organisations, to make business connections with the renewables industry, free of charge [3].

However, there are several elements of the Community Energy strategy of concern to the STA. The proposal to potentially help fund community-energy schemes from an ‘Allowable Solutions' fund refers to DCLG's roll-back on delivering Zero Carbon Homes by 2016. DCLG will potentially allow house-builders to contribute money to a ‘pot' rather than incorporate high levels of insulation and Zero Carbon technologies, in particular solar thermal or solar PV, in new homes and other buildings. Details have yet to be finalised, but the STA strongly disagrees with the extent to which this approach may apply.

The STA also wants to see a broader definition of community solar that includes socially-oriented organisations such as social housing providers, schools and public service providers. In this regard the STA wants DECC to reverse the reduction in FIT support for social housing providers when they install solar on large volumes of social housing.

The strategy highlights difficulties accessing the grid. The STA believes stronger Government strategic intervention is required to align local power networks to supporting the growth of local renewables. Seasoned commercial developers, yet alone community schemes, can face serious difficulties securing timely and fairly-priced grid access and the STA is concerned by the disparate nature of industry groups working to resolve this.

Leonie Greene said:

"The Strategy is a good start, but it would be perverse if community solar were funded at the expense of incorporating solar thermal and solar PV in new homes and buildings where it is sensible and cost-effective to do so. Building out the huge carbon impact of our built environment is essential to tackle climate change. It is hard to believe that community activists, who are highly motivated by environmental concerns, would support this approach. We all want to see community renewables properly funded while they get off the ground in the UK, but it would surely make much more sense to raise funds from levies on polluting fossil fuel activities."

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