Positive action on community energy

A glance at our diverse efforts to support community initiatives

3 September 2015

Community Energy Fortnight (5-20 September) is a celebration of how communities across the UK are generating, owning and saving energy. Check out what events are taking place near you this September everything from wind-farm tours to build-your-own-solar-panel workshops. 

It's undoubtedly immensely helpful in engaging the public, and if you’re interested in starting your own community energy project this is a brilliant opportunity to meet the enthusiastic people behind (and those benefiting from) existing schemes and to discuss any ideas you have brewing.

Furthering community action on energy is a large part of our work here at CSE and we manage a host of projects to enable communities across the UK to respond effectively to the threat of climate change and the misery of cold homes. And because we're active in this field, we know only too well of the barriers that hold the community energy sector back. This piece summarises four of the biggest of these barriers, and looks at how we help groups overcome them. 

1. Funding

Funding and finance is invariably cited as the chief barrier to delivering successful community energy projects, and as a result it is here where we concentrate much of our efforts. For example our CEO, Simon Roberts, lobbies hard on community energy finance, and our development team is regularly consulted on ways in which funding should be distributed or focussed.

The Urban Community Energy Fund (UCEF) represents a real breakthrough in addressing the funding issue. This is a hefty government pot, which we administer, to which groups can apply for grants and loans to support large scale community renewable initiatives in towns and cities. At the other end of the scale we also administer much smaller funds for initiatives such as Green Open Homes events and WPD’s Community Chest.

CSE has developed comprehensive guidance, resources and video guides to help community groups and organisations with identifying and accessing sources of funding and finance – and we are about to launch a web-based funding database specifically for community energy projects (watch this space).

2. Access to data

It's not a barrier that immediately springs to mind, but community organisations can really benefit from access to high-quality data to help make best use of limited time, underpin their projects and target their activity. For example, information on housing stock can be used to plan an energy efficiency project in a given neighbourhood. CSE’s is keen to share our knowledge and practical experience and we've made publically available various datasets that we've developed over the years; our open data page is the place to go.

The National Heat Map (built by us for DECC) can be used to assess the suitability of any given area for a district heating system or (with data added more recently) a water source heat pump. Another example is data released in 2014 on off-gas postcodes in Great Britain. Households in these areas are likely to be reliant upon more expensive forms of heating such as oil or LPG, so might benefit more than most from community heating systems or domestic energy efficiency programmes.

3. Expertise

Lots of community energy groups are lucky enough to have members who are technical experts, e.g. engineers, accountants, ecologists. Less common, but equally valuable are the ‘softer’ skills of community engagement and consultation, or experience in project management, planning, legal issues, marketing and publicity. Many of our guidance materials and resources (see The Source) serve to help plug this gap.

We also run regular training sessions and are able to act both as an intermediary organisation and as a ‘critical friend’, flagging up areas where a community energy group or project needs to do more work or bring in an expert.

Conversely, in many situations there is a huge depth of relevant knowledge, but this isn’t shared more widely, because of the lack of time, and of capacity to disseminate, network and share. Our experience is that community energy networks and energy forum events are an excellent way to facilitate peer-to-peer learning and we encourage this approach wherever possible – for example through regional and national energy events, and via project specific sessions (e.g. training for the Urban Community Energy Fund; Green Open Homes network events). One example of where CSE can provide practical support in addition to written guidance is in neighbourhood planning, which offers great potential for communities to make statutory changes in favour of local low carbon initiatives.

4. Time - a precious commodity

Many community energy projects are modest in scale due to the fact that the volunteers behind the project have family and/or work commitments that leave them with little time to spare. So many of our resources aim to streamline the process by providing tried and tested materials, easily accessible guidance and pathways, and useful tools and support. We also provide training and networking opportunities to encourage the sharing of ideas and experiences and, crucially, to reduce the duplication of work.

We have also been creating a suite of resources called ‘Projects in a box’. These take the hard work out of planning and developing local energy projects, reducing the time commitment needed to set up local initiatives so more energy can be spent on actions which will have an impact.

These barriers (and lots of other things) are discussed in our response to a call for evidence from the government Department of Energy and Climate Change, which fed into the latest Community Energy Strategy (published in 2014).

We're planning to incorporate and expand our existing community energy websites (The Source and Planlocal) into a new local energy subsite (a bit like our advice site). In the meantime, our main community energy page is here. We also produce a monthly community energy newsletter; you can read the latest one (August 2015) here.

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