Bristol Energy Cooperative is ten years old this year, and we’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve been doing it so long now that we take community energy for granted, but for many people it’s a new concept, so here’s a little bit of background to the sector, and some thoughts on where it should go next.
Our co-op was set up in 2011 by a number of volunteers across the city who wanted to get hands-on in shaping the city’s energy future. They worked with specialists in the co-operative sector to set up an organisation that could develop renewable energy and energy efficiency projects which local people could help develop, fund, implement and operate. Revenues from the schemes would be recycled back into the community, and the organisation would be democratically run, with one-member-one-vote irrespective of the amount people had invested. The aim was for investors to receive a financial, environmental and social return on their investment.
The structure we adopted to meet these aims was a Community Benefit Society – or to give it its full name at the time, an Industrial and Provident Society for Community Benefit. We call them BenComs for short.
What we’ve achieved
Fast forward ten years, and the model’s been a success: over £12 million raised through commercial and community funding; our 600 members own 16 solar and battery storage projects, which together provide enough clean energy to power over 3,000 homes; our members have received an annual interest payment on their investment for each year that our schemes have been in operation; and we’ve facilitated over £250,000 of community benefit payments through our activities.
Community energy nationally
When we first started up, energy co-ops were fairly rare, but over the past decade community energy groups have sprung up across the UK as local communities take positive action in face of climate change. In 2019 a total of 300 community energy groups were developing low carbon projects across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Each community energy group is unique, but many have the same origins: a few people who wanted to see change got together round a kitchen table, combined their skills, hatched a plan, got a few friends involved, then started to work on it, in the evenings, around the day job. The things that groups decide to work on depends on factors such as their geographical location (urban/rural), the skills within the group, and what projects are financially viable – which is heavily influenced by government policy.
For many groups it’s a passion, a deep commitment. And it’s rarely easy. Government policy towards our sector has been less than supportive for some time, but through ingenuity, persistence and huge volunteer effort, the sector has grown enormously, and some of the larger groups, including ours, now have some paid staff.
Community-owned electricity generation capacity in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (1997-2019)
Source: State of the Sector 2020 Report by Community Energy England & Community Energy Wales
The South West of England is a particular hot-spot for community energy. Collectively with our friends at Bath and West Community Energy, Low Carbon Gordano, Chelwood Community Energy, and Plymouth Energy Community, to name but a few, we’ve developed a decent chunk of the nation’s community energy capacity, and funded much of it through community share and bond offers. Many of these, including our own current share offer, have been hosted on Ethex, a not-for-profit online platform that promotes and manages positive investing. So far over £55 million has been invested into community energy projects via the Ethex platform, and this is likely to grow significantly as ever more people take action on climate change
The next ten years
What we all do in the next ten years will be crucial to us getting to net-zero in the required timeframes.
The good news is that the past decade has seen huge technical and financial advances in the low-carbon sector. Renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels, and reaching net zero is now technically feasible, and will bring many benefits.
The bad news is that, although we’ve already managed to decarbonise our electricity supply at an astonishing rate, this is the low-hanging fruit, achieved with minimal change needed from the public. Decarbonising our heating and transport will be much more intrusive, and this is where community energy can play an important enabling role, as a trusted member of the local community.
Astonishingly however, the government’s recently published 10-Point Plan and Energy White Paper made no mention of community energy and the key role it plays in engaging the wider community on the energy transition. This needs to change now if the government is serious about us reaching our collective net-zero target. Give us the tools to do our job!
In the meantime, we’ve got projects to deliver, and our current community share offer – our seventh in all – represents another step in BEC’s development. We’re introducing additional renewable energy sources to our portfolio through our hydro scheme, and integrating technologies through our microgrids, while doing more rooftop solar.
We’ve now raised over 60% of our £2 million target, and our share offer is open until the end of March 2021. Find out more including how to invest here.
Co-founder and director
Bristol Energy Cooperative