DECC’s Community Energy Strategy

Is this when we shift from ‘in spite of’ to ‘because of’? Sort of.

27 January 2014

It’s been a truism of community energy activism for many years that what communities have managed to achieve across the UK has been ‘in spite of’ the policies and regulations which shape our energy system rather than ‘because of’.

So the publication of the Government’s long-awaited Community Energy Strategy is potentially when that changes and we start to see policy interventions which are specifically designed to enable and support community action on energy.

There are welcome signs in the strategy that this is the case. Sort of. The strategy proposes various types of assistance that will undoubtedly mean some community initiatives will now happen ‘because of’ deliberate policies and programmes to stimulate and support them. That’s new, different and welcome.

As one might expect, the document (and associated ministerial comment) oozes positivity and encouragement for the initiative shown by community groups all round the country to find creative ways to achieve their goals. The strategy puts in place some important extra resources to enable more to happen, such as the £10 million Urban Community Energy Fund and a ‘one-stop-shop’ information access point for support and advice. And it commits the government to consider the future recommendations of a series of barrier-busting working groups it establishes, including on planning and permitting, grid connection, and access to finance.

Overall, the Coalition Government should be applauded for acknowledging with this strategy publication what previous administrations have ignored: that a more people-facing, community-engaging, diverse-ownership approach to energy system development and governance adds vital resilience and responsiveness that is otherwise absent.

But (and there was always going to be a but!), the strategy stops short of the shift in thinking required to ensure we are unequivocally set on a path toward such an energy system. Indeed, it does not get close to getting to grips with what we could call the ‘in spite of’ policies, institutional arrangements, market models and regulatory frameworks which continue to ensure our energy system is designed to suit large commercial interests.

These ‘in spite of’ elements are indifferent to community energy and its broader public benefits. And they are blind to the inherent contradictions between (1) an energy system dominated by, and run for large commercial interests and (2) the need for mass engagement with demand reduction, flexible and diverse response to incorporate renewables, and a sense of collective responsibility for system performance.

And yet these ‘in spite of’ elements continue to dominate policy thinking and shape our future energy system. They remain unchallenged and untouched by the strategy. It contains no proposal to introduce a process into all DECC and Ofgem policy-making across all realms of energy policy which tests whether existing and proposed policies and programmes are obstructing, undermining, ignoring or (just possibly) nurturing community action on energy.

This isn’t surprising or necessarily down-heartening at this stage, given the lack of attention to community energy in the past and the resulting limits to understanding and interest. But we must think of this strategy as merely a start, a first few steps towards a more significant transformation of the energy system.

If these are the first modest steps towards that transformation – to create some welcome ‘because of’ interventions – the next steps will be to challenge more explicitly and thoroughly these systemic ‘in spite of’ elements.

This will require a far clearer articulation of that transformation and what it would deliver that the current ‘in spite of’ approaches cannot. It will need insightful analysis to unpick the misplaced confidence in these approaches that dominates DECC and wider policy-making circles. And it will demand a far wider coalition of interests to push it forwards than was assembled to help secure these first few steps.

This was always too much to expect of the UK’s first ever Community Energy Strategy. But it isn’t too much to expect of what could happen next and what we hope to be involved with, building on the momentum this strategy will help to create.

Simon Roberts OBE is CSE's Chief Executive

Photo: Chris Frewin, reproduced under creative commons

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