Putting communities at the heart of the energy system, by Community Energy England's Emma Bridge

There is an energy revolution taking place. The energy sector must take urgent climate action whilst also modernising the grid, driving technological innovation and making sure that the changes taking place are fair, with people placed at the centre of the decision-making process.

ENA’s manifesto articulates some of those changes and developments that are needed to ensure that economic and social benefits of a net zero energy system will truly be enjoyed by all. The manifesto rightly highlights the need to further energise towns, cities and villages and equip and support them to respond to the climate emergency and participate in the transition to our future energy system. We share this aim, and understand that it can be difficult for those progressing large-scale infrastructure and system developments to know how to connect to communities and individuals. But without access and the opportunity to participate, there is a real risk that some communities will be left behind or even negatively impacted by the transition to net zero, rather than influencing the changes and enabling wider benefits.

Community energy is an effective vehicle for engaging communities and ensuring that people’s needs are addressed. Community energy projects aim to put people at the heart of the energy system by placing an emphasis on community leadership, accountability, ownership and benefit. People become more connected to the energy system and understand it. Communities are empowered to accelerate the transition to a low carbon and sustainable energy system.

Our vision is for community groups in every village, town, city and in rural areas across the country to have the opportunity create energy projects and realise the benefits for the environment, investors and local communities. As technology develops and energy networks evolve, system operators have the opportunity to be an active part of turning this vision into a reality. In doing so, the energy system stands not only the greatest chance of meeting the needs of diverse communities all over the UK but also increasing the benefits that they can facilitate for society as a whole.

A big challenge in the sector is quantifying these social benefits in ways that transparently demonstrate the additional benefits from community energy projects in comparison with commercial operators. As well as the £978,000 of community benefit funding generated by community energy in England and Wales in 2018, benefits such as increasing local social cohesion, tackling fuel poverty and raising awareness of climate change, mean that community-led energy projects can deliver transformational change in a local area. Private and publicly-owned energy projects and services can substantially increase their impact by collaborating with communities.

Take this years’ Community Energy Collaboration Award winner Riding Sunbeams, a start-up social enterprise on a world-leading mission to power railways with community solar. Its aim is to connect enough unsubsidised, community and commuter-owned solar to the rail network in the South East of England to power one in every 10 trains, and importantly share learnings from the project to encourage more solar to be used for the benefit of the railway routes, the communities that host them and of course the planet. Riding Sunbeams is helping the UK’s largest energy user to decarbonise and use renewable energy. The core team has embedded community energy, social impact and the importance of working with lineside communities and rail users at the heart of the project.

We urge all businesses in the energy sector to develop internal policies and measures that ensure the social benefits of community energy are taken into account, with acknowledgment that one size doesn't fit all and that community energy groups will not always be able to compete on a purely financial basis with conventional commercial operators, at least until social impact is measured in financial terms. As Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) transition to Distribution System Operators (DSOs), the energy networks and community energy organisations must work in partnership to draw people in, not just as consumers but also as active participants or partners in bringing about a net zero energy system.


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