UKERC Publication

Visions for the Future of Community Energy in the UK: realising the potential 

Authors: 
Tim Braunholtz-Speight, Carly McLachlan, Sarah Mander, University of Manchester
Strath Iain Cairns, Matthew Hannon, University of Strathclyde
Jeff Hardy, Imperial College London
Ed Manderson, Maria Sharmina, University of Manchester

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What might community energy in the UK look like in the long term? What does it need for it to thrive? This report provides a summary of practitioner and stakeholder responses to these questions, and many more, that explore the future of Community Energy in the UK.

The potential for community energy

Through a series of workshops held across the UK over the winter of 2018-19, invited participants were encouraged to explore and debate the future of community energy.

We found that community energy actors feel they have lots to offer to, and gain from, the transition to a decentralised and flexible energy system. The system appears to be moving towards a future where there is a clear need for organisations that combine technical knowledge with the skills and trust to effectively engage citizens – such as community energy groups.

Community energy business models of the future

What will community energy groups be doing in this thriving future? During the workshops we developed and refined a range of potential business models, producing five outlined in the report: the renewable electricity federation; local energy aggregation; energy saving services; low carbon mobility; and district heat networks.

The overarching message is that community energy could become much more than electricity generation. In this future, community energy organisations would combine multiple business models to make best use of their complementarities and to stack revenues. They would retail electricity to local customers, as well as selling to national wholesalers, and aggregate local supply and demand in the UK’s smart energy system. They would offer local tariffs, and use their pricing and technical know-how to address fuel poverty and the digital divide. Some would run ‘mixed mobility’ services – buses, car clubs and more; or heat networks in off-gas-grid areas and new-build developments.

Underlying the sometimes passionate debates about the models was a great degree of pragmatism and flexibility. What really motivated these community energy actors was realising values of energy democracy and justice; specific technologies or business models were means to these ends, rather than ends in themselves.

Realising this vision

The changes needed to make this future possible require government action. Participants highlighted the vital importance of  “taking climate change seriously” and setting zero carbon targets for all sectors of the economy. Electricity regulation needs to allow local supply; and more fundamentally, to be able to take into account factors beyond the immediate cost and reliability of energy. While the smart energy revolution may be yet to fully take off, participants felt that action is needed to preserve space for smaller actors in the transition and avoid the creation of new infrastructure monopolies. In this, community energy organisations may find allies in smaller private sector energy companies, who face some similar challenges in the UK’s relatively centralised energy system.

Looking inwards, participants wanted to see more strategic cooperation: both within the sector, and the sector reaching out to potential allies in the wider third sector and among small energy companies. Many acknowledged that they would need to gain new skills in new technologies. They also saw  making the case for community energy, and  the benefits they felt are realised by taking a community approach, as vital for the sector’s future. Research can play a key role in establishing the evidence here.

Local authorities were a third focus of debate. There was a great deal of hope that they would be “brave”, and use their procurement and economic development role to support community energy, involving citizens and making the most of the opportunities provided by a decentralised energy future. Devolved governments were praised for the support they already offer to the sector, and the continuation of this was seen as important.

Next steps

This report provides an initial synthesis of participants’ responses; further outputs from the project will analyse the visions, and pathways to realising them, in more detail. Watch this space!

Download the full report here

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The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) carries out world-class research into sustainable future energy systems. UKERC is funded by the UK Research and Innovation Energy Programme.