How to ride the ‘rollercoaster’ of community energy

A new book has been published to help organisations understand the ‘rollercoaster’ ride of setting up a community energy project.

Community Energy: A guide to community-based renewable-energy projects has been written by Gordon Cowtan and looks at the history of community energy in the UK and examines which projects have been successful and unsuccessful.

Mr Cowtan was one of the founders of the Fintry Development Trust, set up in 2007 to help make local residents in the Scottish village reduce their energy use and tackle other issues like fuel poverty.

He said the trust launched one of the first shared ownership schemes with a commercial wind farm in the country, through an agreement with Earlsburn Wind Farm.

‘We in effect own part of the wind farm,’ said Mr Cowtan. ‘The electricity it generates goes into the grid and that creates an income, which we use for other projects in the village.

‘Over the years, we have run a range of schemes; we have put insulation into people’s houses; we set up a small district heating scheme for 25 park homes and we have an energy adviser, who works full-time in the village, helping people with energy issues and guiding them through the labyrinth of different government schemes.

‘We are currently in the middle of a fairly big project, which is looking at setting up a local energy economy for the area,’ he added.

‘Difficult phase’

In June, a report by Community Energy England found around a third of community energy groups have seen projects stall or become inactive since government subsidies were slashed.

Mr Cowtan admitted the community energy sector is going through a ‘difficult phase at the moment’.

‘It grew quite rapidly seven or eight years or so, on the back of the feed-in tariff and the renewable heat incentive.

‘Obviously, in recent years these have been scaled back, so community energy schemes are having to be more enterprising and creative in how they go about doing things.

‘There are things going on around storage and the capabilities, which are coming along with smart metering, where you can have a much clearer idea of just exactly how much electricity people are using and when they are using it.

‘There’s a big sea change coming,’ said Mr Cowtan. ‘I don’t think anyone knows how it will play out, but it will change how the whole electricity system in the UK operates.’

Identifying opportunities

He said his advice to any group thinking of setting up a community energy scheme is not to ‘necessarily try to copy what other people have done’.

‘Be opportunistic,’ he said. ‘Look at where the opportunities lie in your local area. Are the opportunities to do with setting up some form of renewable generation or is it more feasible to do house-to-house insulation project? Keep an open mind and look for the opportunities.

‘One of the things I wanted to do [with the book] is highlight that it’s not necessarily very easy to get projects off the ground.

‘There are a lot of projects that don’t get very far and for very good reasons sometimes. It can take a long time for things to happen and from my experience it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. You can have something that takes two or three years to happen, and during that time you can some big successes when you feel you’re making progress and then there are other times you frankly despair it will ever get anywhere at time.’

He added getting cooperation and buy-in from other stakeholders is also useful.

‘If you can align what you are doing with other people’s objectives, they will tend to come on-board. But if you are running across what they are trying to do, it is more difficult.

‘Community energy is quite a good news story. When something happens, it works well and people feel good about it. I think people like to support things where they can.’

Community Energy: A guide to community-based renewable-energy projects is available now from Green Books. 

Jamie Hailstone
Senior reporter - NewStart


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