Community Energy Challenge

Supporting community groups with big renewable energy ambitions

The Community Energy Challenge was a bold initiative by The Co-operative that supported seven community groups keen to develop sizeable renewable energy projects - e.g. valued at £1m to £3m and/or rated in excess of 500kW.

The project , which was delivered by CSE on behalf of The Co-operative Group, aimed to encourage community energy schemes across the UK by actively supporting the groups in identifying and overcoming barriers, raising awareness of community renewables, creating schemes that could be replicated elsewhere and, unsurprisingly given the funder, encouraging a co-operative ownership model.  

The groups were given 18 months of support, which involved many different aspects of project development across a range of renewable energy technologies and locations, ranging from a wind farm on a Scottish island to solar-enabled motorway noise barriers in Oxfordshire. 

The Community Energy Challenge was part of The Co-operative’s Clean Energy Revolution campaign.

The seven groups involved were: 

Brendon Energy whose aim was to work with local people to find the best site, or sites, for a small number of medium-sized wind turbines in the ten parishes around Wiveliscombe, Somerset. These would be owned by the community, and all profits will be invested in new energy projects and donated to a fund to benefit local people. 

Abergwyngregyn Regeneration Company, a North Wales community group that worked with the National Trust to investigate a 500kW hydro project on the Anafon River.

Towards Zero Carbon Bute who want to develop community-owned energy projects on the island, and to give people a say in the generation of local energy while delivering wider social and environmental benefits.

Sustainable Oakenshaw in Co Durham who are looking for the widest community participation possible in their efforts to develop a community-owned wind turbine that would generate funds to invest in improving the local area.

Transition Belper who want to explore and develop community-owned and run hydro power projects in the Derwent Valley world heritage corridor between Cromford and Derby.

Wey Valley Woodfuela Surrey-based community group keen to explore an energy project that raises money through community share issues to install biomass boilers and generate free heat energy for community spaces such as schools, churches and leisure centres.

The M40 Chilterns Environmental Groupa extremely able group with a big idea: to tackle noise pollution on a 20 mile section of the M40 while creating solar energy capacity through use of photovoltaic-enabled noise barriers. Here's how the BBC covered the story online.

These seven were among 124 groups who originally applied to join the Community Energy Challenge. For information about the selection process, which CSE managed, click here.  

CSE began working with the groups immediately, with a view to helping them become ‘investment ready’ by the end of 2013. Each group was assigned an expert mentor to support the group in tackling tricky, time-consuming and relatively specialists tasks such as project planning, community facilitation and enterprise development, along with technical advice and targeted financial assistance for key costs at the project development phase (such as legal fees, planning fees, ecological monitoring and site analysis).

So, after 18 months, how had the groups fared? Scroll down to find out ...

Brendon Energy's plans for a community owned 3-6 turbine wind farm (generating a total 1.5MW) fell through, thanks to the constraints of the local electricity grid, and lobbying from a local anti-wind group. Smaller-scale proposals put forward by the group were also unsuccessful and so the group is now concentrating on solar and has launched a second share offer for solar installations on three community buildings in the area in 2013. Its members have also set up a solar club to obtain bulk-buying discounts for solar PV installations. 

The hydro project in Abergwyngregyn is making slow but steady progress. There are ongoing lease issues with the National Trust, but a favourable agreement with Natural Resource Wales has been concluded. The group plans to raise £400,000 of the estimated £1.3M construction costs through a share issue, with the remainder met by loan funding (both Triodos and the Charity Bank have offered the group the required loan in principle). The group hopes to appoint contractors in autumn 2014, with the aim of having the system running by November 2015.

Plans for a community wind development on Bute stalled when the owners of the preferred site pulled out, but negotiations are underway with another landowner who is interested in renewable energy and the rental income of the turbines. In expectation of a positive outcome, the group is preparing materials for a share issue and has secured funds to take the project to the planning stage

There was an unexpected outcome for Sustainable Oakenshaw. In the course of planning and development the owner of the chosen site for the community wind farm decided he wished to finance and own the project himself. In recognition of the work the group had done to obtain planning permission and gain public support, the landowner has agreed to donate a lump sum to Oakenshaw Community Association (this was to be the main beneficiary of a project) plus an annual donation over the next 20 years. Both the group and the community are very happy with this arrangement, and the site is now under construction.

It's slower progress in the Derwent Valley for Transition Belper. Their initial feasibility study for a community-owned and run hydro scheme is complete, but nothing further can happen until the Environment Agency complete their review of the Pre-Application paperwork. Parallel to this, the group is currently in the process of applying for support under the Rural Community Energy Fund to explore four alternative options in more detail, and they have been going through a tender process to find the best consultants to work with.

Wey valley Woodfuel are meeting with some success. Following successful feasibility studies, the group has submitted a full planning application to install two 199 kW Hertz biomass boilers in a new boiler house at the Care Ashore sheltered housing near Cranleigh. The boilers will be linked up to a district heating system which will heat the main house, annex and mews, and around 14 other residential buildings on the Springbok Estate.

And success, too, for the M40 Chilterns Environmental Group. As a result of the group’s tireless efforts over the last few years, the Highways Agency is planning to support the development of solar-enabled motorway noise barriers (abbreviated to PVNBs) and install these along stretches of the M40. And they may ultimately be seen on motorways up and down the UK. The group however may still have to take a lead in developing community-owned schemes in parallel to those developed by the Highways Agency.   

More detail about all the projects can be found on the 'wrapping-up newsletter'.

As the project drew to a close, CSE's Martin Holley said:

"Community energy is still not widely implemented in the UK, and the Community Energy Challenge shows why. The groups who took part faced many hurdles along the way, enough to put off all but the most determined individuals and organisations, and, indeed, some were forced to drop out altogether.

"Nonetheless, we've seen many successes and achievements, with each group helping to break down barriers and raise awareness of community energy. It’s been great to work with all of these groups, and we would like to congratulate each one on their efforts and wish those with ongoing projects every success for the future."


Community energy videos

These four short (8 -12 min) films show successful community energy projects in action: solar PV in West Oxford; biomass district heating for a small community in Sussex; a community-owned wind turbine in Nottinghamshire; and a community hydro-electric scheme on the River Ribble jn North Yorkshire.

Note that these are 'medium-sized' community initiatives – smaller than the ones supported by the Community Energy Challenge detailed above.

These videos were made for our PlanLoCaL project. In all, some 47 videos were made for this initiative, and you can see a full list of them here or on our YouTube channel.

Photo of West Mill Farm wind turbines: Brian Robert Marshall | reproduced under creative commons 

The selection process

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