It is difficult to believe that in 2018, hundreds of thousands of households must choose between spending money on heating or eating.
In Cornwall alone, fuel poverty affects 34,000 families, including children - many of whom are suffering breathing and heart problems caused by damp and cold housing. In the county, around 300 deaths a year are attributed to fuel poverty – when a household’s income is below the poverty line after it has paid its energy bills.
It’s a clear sign that the energy system is no longer fit for purpose –– or people’s wallets. Energy is also one of the main contributors to climate change, through the burning of fossil fuels. We all have a stark choice: to do nothing or make an effort to be part of more sustainable energy solutions.
Luckily, the South West and most other regions in the UK is home to some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, including sun, wind, tide, wave, geothermal, and biomass.
But more importantly, we are also seeing a groundswell among residents who are determined to improve energy infrastructure in their communities. Community organisations have taken matters into their own hands through seeing that communities and individuals are spending billions on energy, and question how much of that is ploughed back into the home community.
These people are not sitting around complaining about their bills; they’re forming not-for-profit Community Energy Companies.
Members drive community-led projects in renewable energy, energy demand reduction, energy supply, and education. These initiatives can be carried out as standalone community projects, or in partnership with commercial or public-sector partners. Any surplus income from community energy is often spent on energy-saving technologies for the local community such as insulation or LED lights – providing vital cash savings to groups, societies and good causes. In many cases interest payments averaging about 5% are paid to members of the public who find energy projects in their local area.
It is so encouraging to see large and small scale community energy organisations owning and investing in renewable energy, it is the way forward in these times of political antipathy against new building of renewables to ensure that we continue to a low carbon energy future.
Exeter Community Energy for example has eight rooftop installations and is currently engaged in a hydro project. It is also working on Healthy Homes for Wellbeing. It is a prime example of where a community has come together to facilitate community ownership and active participation that engages and strengthens the local community and its economy through volunteering, investment opportunities and becoming energy producers.
Another example is Plymouth Energy Community, who invited members of the public to buy community shares in a solar development at Ernesettle – and raised a cool £1 million. Members worked with a local economic development trust to transform derelict land into a 4.1MW solar farm, which generates enough clean energy to meet the annual needs of 1,000 homes. It also enabled investor members to make a fair return on their investments.
The group has also tackled fuel poverty head on; securing £500,000 from The Big Lottery to help people with disabilities and illness stay warm and well. Outreach programmes offer real
solutions to the harrowing reality of fuel poverty – people with a high level of debt experiencing incredibly poor standards of living in damp homes.
Green Wedmore in Somerset, a long standing sustainability group are setting some high targets – a Zero Carbon Village by 2045. They are doing this by examining the carbon footprint of energy use (the village already has a 1 MW solar farm), transport, housing and food and looking at the impact of how becoming zero carbon can dramatically improve the wellbeing of the community. Next up is solar and a sexy Tesla battery for the village hall!
Meanwhile, Cornwall is also a hive of activity – with around 20 formally constituted community energy organisations, and a plethora of community groups; making its community energy sector one of the strongest in the country.
One of the most thriving CECs within The Duchy is Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN), which has notched up an impressive 1,130 paying members. The group has generated enough solar photovoltaic energy to heat 279 homes, and generated enough energy to make 314 million cups of tea. It also manages a £50,000 community fund.
These groups show that the sky is the limit for CEC projects. Many are now actively seeking new sites for large wind and solar farms, which offer economies of scale and therefore greater potential to reduce bills - which is the top priority for those experiencing fuel poverty.
A good deal of these sometimes huge projects are volunteer-led but advice is on hand from many organisations including Community Energy England and local authorities. For example, Cornwall Council has set up a £2.5m revolving loan fund to support community energy projects in the county. The authority has also ploughed £10 million into communities across Cornwall by encouraging energy developers to support the areas hosting their schemes.
Community Energy is not for the faint-hearted, but it is a positive and tangible way to change the energy market, bring back control of energy to the local area and show support for the tens of thousands of people who are are at the sharp end of fuel poverty.
Sonya Bedford is a partner and head of energy at Stephens Scown LLP. Sonya has been named Community Energy Champion at the Community Energy Awards and Energy Institute Awards, as well as Environmental Champion at the Devon Environmental Business Initiative Awards.