Community Energy Conference – Where next for Community Energy?

By Matt Wood, Bioregional

This year’s Community Energy Conference was held on June 24th in Manchester, with the theme “Powering Together”. For the last few years, many community energy projects (particularly solar) have struggled because of a list of multiple government policy changes and other upheavals (guess what!) longer than my arm. At one point one of the speakers showed the list, and I’m pretty sure they had to use a smaller font size to fit it all on one slide. Powering Together was a conscious attempt to bring groups together and explore how the community energy movement can continue at such an unstable time.

To kick us off, conference sponsor Co-op Energy’s new CEO launched the company’s  community energy strategy. Among its targets is an aim to double the number of Power Purchase Agreements with community energy groups to 60 over the next three years. It has also recently launched a new venture called Co-op Energy Saving, which sells energy-saving products and services. It would be really interesting if this new venture could actively work with community energy groups, something I’ll be exploring myself in the near future.

Emma Bridge, CEO of Community Energy England, then launched this year’s State of the Sector report. Highlights include that community energy groups now own 121 MW of energy capacity, which has generated 265 GWh of energy since 2002 (enough to power half of Bristol’s homes for a year). But the report also addresses the challenges the sector faces and notes that 44 projects have stalled since the last survey. This is just the stalled projects from those who responded; the number of small groups that have not even got out of the starting blocks is unknown.

Although encouragement and optimism was the theme of the day, my personal experience was that community energy is in a period of consolidation, with groups struggling to find a way forward and innovate. Those with secured projects are carrying on with what they were doing, but it’s very difficult for new groups. This was highlighted in the energy efficiency workshop which showcased a number of interesting projects, none of which I felt a new group could develop for themselves.

So how does the sector move forward? Some suggested more of the same, noting that PV costs have reduced to the point where, on certain sites, subsidy is not needed. Some are still hoping (in vain?) for government support to return. In my opinion, community energy needs to redouble its efforts to partner with organisations that are interested in making an impact. This could include housing developers, social landlords, companies and large property owners. Although it can be difficult to work with large organisations, and can cause moral dilemmas for groups, we need to be pragmatic and these organisations have the ability to deliver on a larger scale.

But to engage with larger organisations, community energy needs to speak at the right scale. So that means groups need to work more at city, regional and national level in order to have real impact.