The Rough Guide to Community Energy 2020

John Williams

19 Aug 2020

image credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash


Community Energy (CE) groups nationwide are developing innovative projects to help meet the UK’s energy challenges. It’s clear that they have a crucial role to play, including supporting a sustainable and secure energy system, as well as reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to their low carbon credentials, CE groups can provide a host of services and benefits, including flexibility, demand management, avoided grid reinforcement costs and cheaper consumer bills.

What is Community Energy?

Community Energy refers to the delivery of community-led renewable energy, energy demand reduction and energy supply projects, whether wholly owned and/or controlled by communities or through collaboration with commercial or public sector partners.

The term “Community Energy” covers a range of collective actions, from saving or reducing usage to purchasing, managing and generating energy. It doesn’t include commercial or government-backed initiatives, nor isolated, individual efforts. The emphasis is very much on projects involving local engagement, leadership and control, and where there is a benefit to local communities.

Community Energy is an organisational body comprising community members involved in any combination of the following: energy generation, storage, efficiency or demand reduction. It is largely run by Community Benefit Societies (BenComs), cooperatives or Community Interest Companies (CICs). (1)

image credit: Karsten Wurth, Unsplash

How many CE projects are there in the UK?

Since 2008, there have been over 5,000 CE groups in the UK that have developed initiatives and projects to produce independent energy. Although this only accounts for 0.3% of the UK’s energy grid, there is tremendous potential for such projects. Germany gives a clear demonstration of this with a 46% contribution to its grid.

Examples of CE projects include:

  • community-owned renewable electricity installations, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind turbines or hydroelectric generation
  • community members jointly switching to a renewable heat source, such as a heat pump, or changing electricity or gas suppliers
  • a community group supporting energy-saving measures, such as the installation of smart technology working in partnership with local Distribution Network Operators (DNOs)

The Roupell Park Estate in Brixton, south London, is an example of a CE network project which installed 52 kWp of rooftop solar panels in 2012. The panels were financed by the estate’s tenants, each of whom invested £50, raising a total of £60,000, allowing them to part-own the panels. The revenue generated is invested back into the community. (2)

10 benefits of Community Energy

Here are the top 10 benefits of Community Energy:

  1. Reducing emissions – Community Energy is renewable energy. Urban projects tend to be solar, whereas rural initiatives are wind or hydro-based, but they all contribute to meeting the UK’s CO2 targets.
  2. Network efficiency – CE projects are a great way to both speed up and scale up the rollout of small and medium-scale renewable technologies that offer a number of advantages, such as keeping transmission losses to a minimum, because generation takes place near the point of consumption.
  3. Resilience – With localised production, greater efficiency and greater control of energy, communities are much less vulnerable to price rises in the future. Furthermore, a National Trust report focused on a CE case study in Abergwyngregyn, Wales, found that “planning, survey and engineering work all provide local employment opportunities, and the income from schemes strengthens the local economy”.
  4. Education – Community Energy England’s 2018 State of the Sector report found that 58% of community organisations surveyed cited educational initiatives as a core outcome of their projects.
  5. Community building – Community-scale energy projects enable proactive citizens to make the biggest possible difference. They are substantial enough to be noticed and duplicated elsewhere in the UK and the wider world. A long-term project involves lots of local people and gets them working together, encourages collective decision-making and builds confidence. It is empowering and raises expectations about what people can do together. Within their 2012 Impact Survey, Community Energy Scotland discovered that one major social benefit was that it increased community confidence, i.e. after undertaking a challenging task together, a community felt more able to take on similar large tasks in the future.
  6. Local economy – CE schemes create jobs locally, and income from them strengthens the local economy, especially in places where economic opportunities are scarce.
  7. Household efficiency – One of the proven side-effects of people taking an interest in energy is that they begin using it more wisely. This adds to the carbon savings and lowers bills for people too.
  8. Energy security – As the price of fossil fuels rises with global demand, reducing the UK’s dependency on coal and gas is a priority for our energy systems.
  9. Fuel poverty – Some CE schemes reduce bills (particularly solar) or pay a share of profits to help make energy more affordable. Other ways that Community Energy can help reduce fuel poverty include making homes more efficient or providing advice and guidance. The Carbon Co-op in Greater Manchester delivers whole-house retrofitting to maximise insulation and energy efficiency for members. The Plymouth Energy Community was established in 2013 to help tackle the 13.4% of local homes in fuel poverty. As well as installing solar PV panels in 21 schools and offering insulation schemes, the CE group also launched the Healthy Homes Fund which pays advisers to engage with local residents who suffer from illnesses exacerbated by cold or damp homes.
  10. Autonomy – Creating long-term income and giving people greater control over the money they spend on energy, while at the same time reducing dependency on big and impersonal companies. (3)

Types of renewable energy

What is a renewable energy source? A renewable energy source means energy that is sustainable – something that can’t run out, or is endless, like the Sun. The most popular renewable energy sources are currently:

  • Solar energy
  • Wind energy
  • Hydro energy
  • Tidal energy
  • Geothermal energy
  • Biomass energy

How these types of renewable energy work

Solar energy - Sunlight is one of our planet’s most abundant and freely available energy resources. The amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface in one hour is more than the planet’s total energy requirements for a whole year. Although it sounds like a perfect renewable energy source, the amount of solar energy we can use varies according to the time of day and the season of the year as well as geographical location.

Wind energy - Wind is a plentiful source of clean energy. Wind farms are an increasingly familiar sight in the UK with wind power making an ever-increasing contribution to the National Grid. To harness electricity from wind energy, turbines are used to drive generators which then feed electricity into the National Grid.

Hydro energy - As a renewable energy resource, hydropower is one of the most commercially developed. By building a dam or barrier, a large reservoir can be used to create a controlled flow of water that will drive a turbine, generating electricity. This energy source can often be more reliable than solar or wind power (especially if it’s tidal rather than river) and also allows electricity to be stored for use when demand reaches a peak.

Tidal energy - This is another form of hydro energy that uses twice-daily tidal currents to drive turbine generators. Although tidal flow, unlike some other hydro energy sources, isn’t constant, it is highly predictable and can therefore compensate for the periods when the tide current is low.

Geothermal energy - By harnessing the natural heat below the Earth’s surface, geothermal energy can be used to heat homes directly or to generate electricity. Although it harnesses a power directly below our feet, geothermal energy is of negligible importance in the UK compared with countries such as Iceland, where geothermal heat is much more freely available.

Biomass energy - This is the conversion of solid fuel made from plant materials into electricity. Although, fundamentally, biomass involves burning organic materials to produce electricity, this is not burning wood, and nowadays this is a much cleaner, more energy-efficient process. By converting agricultural, industrial and domestic waste into solid, liquid and gas fuel, biomass generates power at a much lower economic and environmental cost. (4)

How do I start a CE project?

If you want to make a tangible impact, it’s usually the community level that offers the most promise. The beauty of CE projects is their scale: small enough to be within reach for ordinary people, but large enough to make a significant difference.

While there’s no doubting the allure of an entirely new project that you can arrange exactly as you want, setting up a group from scratch should usually be a last resort. It’s crucial to be aware of what’s already going on in your area – community time and resources are in short supply, and the last thing you want to do is use them up by reinventing the wheel. Even if you’re fairly sure there are no existing groups working or willing to work on energy, thorough local research will help you make useful contacts, and may also unearth sources of advice and support. (5)

It is important that a proper business plan is prepared and that a suitable legal structure is created for the CE group, especially if grant funding is being sought. The government suggests that Community Benefit Societies (BenComs), Cooperative Societies and Community Interest Companies (CICs), charities, or joint ventures with private companies may be appropriate legal structures.

It is also recommended that an experienced professional is consulted on suitable technologies, structures and funding, and it may be advantageous to appoint a professional to act on behalf of the CE group. Local authorities may be able to provide support and advice if a community is considering applying for planning permission for the purposes of an electricity generation project. (6)