Power to the people: supporting community energy

Oldham council won the local authority category at this year’s Community Energy England awards. The council’s deputy leader, Abdul Jabbar, talks to Environment Journal about the benefits and potential of local energy generation

What does it mean for the council to have won this Community Energy Award?

This is a really fantastic award for the local residents. The council has supported both Saddleworth Community Hydro and Oldham Community Power to deliver successful energy schemes. We’re a cooperative council and one of our aims is to work with the community, initiate projects like these and help people take ownership. In this case, it’s people taking ownership of generating power themselves, with a little bit of help from the council. By working together, we’ve managed to start something which hopefully will benefit the community for many, many years. Oldham Council also leads for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority on community energy and has secured funding from the EU for a project focused on boosting community energy.

What was the council’s involvement with the Oldham Community Power project?

They came to us with the idea. They said they wanted to use some schools and community buildings initially and put solar panels on council-owned buildings. We said ‘yes, fine’. They wanted to raise the cost of installations from a share offer, but because they were new, they struggled to get the amount of money needed. They asked us for a loan, which we gave them. They have already paid back £70,000. We recognised these people were capable of doing this and have given them a helping hand to get it off the ground.

Would the council support more community energy projects?

Like most councils in the country, we’re struggling financially. But in this case, we were giving them a loan. So yes, if another group comes to us and we can see the benefit of what they are doing, then certainly we would consider it.

What benefits can community energy bring to an area like Oldham?

In the first year, we are looking at schools involved with this project saving £5,000 on their energy bills. There’s also the environment and reducing carbon emissions. And thirdly, it’s people taking an interest in energy generation, which leads them to understand how energy is used, which in turn leads to a reduction in energy consumption. I think there are quite a few benefits and that’s why we feel, as a local authority, we have a community leadership role in this area.

Can you see more councils across the country getting more involved in community energy?

Well, I hope so. As councils, we can’t resolve the energy reduction issue ourselves. We need to get people motivated and educate them. When we get this involvement from the community, we make significant progress. On our own, I don’t think we could do it. People now are buying shares in Oldham Community Power because they recognise the good work it’s doing. What’s happening here will help to generate power locally and protect the community. If we could expand the project, it would have a bigger impact.

What can central government do to support community energy?

Access to the grid should be made easier. They need to encourage the Big Six suppliers to give community projects preferential power purchase agreements. Whatever energy is not used onsite could be exported at a reasonable rate of return, which would mean more of these assets could become commercially viable. There should be a special feed-in-tariff for community groups, because of the massive benefits it creates in a local area. And local authorities should work with communities to come up with better solutions for energy efficiency.

How much of our future energy supplies can be generated locally?

Oldham Community Power is restricted to schools and community centres, but why not go also go into businesses? At the moment the market is dominated by the ‘big six’ suppliers. Ofgem has tried to get them to do all kind of things to provide cheaper tariffs, but they have not been really successful. I think local authorities working with businesses and residents should think about generating power locally. If we generated 25% of power required in Oldham, it would help a lot of people and force the big six to think again.

  • Read more about Oldham Community Power here
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Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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