More clean, renewable energy. We’re all sold on that idea. It’ll give us energy security, cut volatile bills and lower carbon emissions.
But there are different ways of getting to net zero.
The go-to is to use large commercial developers; ideally from the UK but potentially international. Large firms are well placed to build out significant energy generation and storage projects, such as offshore wind. Their access to money and a large skilled workforce means they can get multiple projects delivered at speed.
But what is the role of community energy in all this? Does community energy have enough impact or speed to make a meaningful contribution?
The case for community energy
Since 2011, Bristol Energy Coop has installed around 30,000 solar panels. In many ways you might say we are doing the same thing as a commercial firm.
Far from it.
Our community energy approach shakes up the business model to prioritise social benefit over profit.
We put people at the heart of every stage of our work. We encourage investment and involvement of locals whilst redistributing the profits in a way that reaches everyday folk.
The outcome is that we produce a catalogue of additional benefits that simply wouldn’t exist with the status quo:
1. Boost local jobs
70% of community energy expenditure was spent locally in 2021. At Bristol Energy Coop we largely use small-medium sized companies to install and maintain our solar arrays and provide a range of support services. We opt for local firms because we know and trust them, whereas a national or international company often lacks that local knowledge. Supporting local business like this is great for jobs, but also for boosting green skills in the region.
2. Long term buy-in
The “NIMBY” effect happens when a change is imposed on people and they don’t see the benefits. Community energy groups are really good at talking to people, whether it’s a householder or a council leader. We’re proactively involving the community. This shifts people away from being “victims” of the change to being decision makers, beneficiaries and advocates. If this sounds a bit hypothetical, check out the amazing story of the community-owned wind turbine at Lawrence Weston, Bristol.
3. Recycling revenues into further energy saving projects
Unlike most commercial operators, community energy groups recycle their profits back into local energy saving projects.
Every year, Bristol Energy Coop sets aside around £30,000 for community benefit schemes. This is mainly distributed in the form of grants for local sustainability and energy saving schemes.
Each pound invested into community energy goes a lot further than just one renewable energy scheme. That makes it incredible bang for buck!
4. Empowering and educating communities
The community approach catalyses a completely different relationship between people and energy. This might seem a “nice to have” right now, but let’s just picture the country 10 years from now.
In the 2030s, homes will need to be undergoing a seismic transformation to get off gas. Boilers out, heat pumps in, radiators replaced etc. People will also be expected to use energy differently, avoiding the peak demand moments in the day. This impact on people’s day-to-day lives and homes will involve a huge national education campaign, at great cost.
In community energy, this type of engagement is seamless as it is built into the business model. What’s more, it’s delivered in creative and captivating ways:
- Training up local energy champions that provide energy advice to neighbours
- A competition to name a new local wind turbine
- Solar panels on a school, complete with a live data monitor, allowing school children to see energy production on their roof as it happens
- Workshops, webinars, and visits to solar farms
At Bristol Energy Cooperative, many of our 1500 investors and supporters join us with limited understanding of how the grid works. Through our newsletters, events and social media we are helping develop a public understanding of the energy transition.
A blended approach – but it needs support
Like most things in life, a balanced mix is usually the best solution. Community energy and commercial developers both have a role to play in the energy transition.
Here are some ideas we have about ensuring there’s a happy mix of community and commercial:
- Collaborations between community energy and large developers to get the best of both worlds
- More impact investments in community energy, helping provide the capital to scale up our work
- Government support for energy efficiency, co-delivered by both community energy and the commercial sector (take a look at the City Leap model here in Bristol)
- Support for onshore wind
- Ability to sell electricity to local communities
If you want to know more about working with Bristol Energy Cooperative, as a partner, a funder, or an individual investor, please get in touch.