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The communities taking renewable energy into their own hands

Ed Mayo

5th January, 2012

A new report by Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Group examines those investing time and money in installing solar panels, wind turbines or hydro-electric power for their local communities

Late last year we - Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Group - published a new report which reveals the growing number of people who are choosing to start renewable energy co-operatives in their communities, against all the odds.

What is exciting about the report is that it is the first and most comprehensive guide to what amounts to a new movement of communities who are taking action for greener energy into their own hands.

In a time of doom – when all talk is of cuts, unemployment and rising prices – this report highlights a different story. Despite, or maybe even because, of the wider economic woes, people across the UK are creating a co-operative movement for green energy.

There are now 43 communities who are in the process of or already producing renewable energy through co-operative structures. They are set up and run by everyday people – local residents mostly – who are investing their time and money and together installing solar panels, large wind turbines or hydro-electric power for their local communities.
The report highlights a series of examples. Like Ouse Valley Energy Service Company, which is owned by 250 people who have installed solar panels on a local brewery. Or River Bain Hydro, which installed a hydro electric power generator in its local river with investment of £200,000 from around 200 people.

The report also shows that together across the UK local residents have invested over £16 million in these co-operatives. These range from over £4 million which has been invested by over 2,700 people in Westmill Wind Farm in Oxfordshire, right through to around £38,000 which has been invested by around 34 local residents to install solar panels on a local primary school in Nayland, Suffolk.

Overall, Co-operative renewable energy in the UK is a testimony to the fact that green economy co-operatives are the fastest growing part of the UK co-operative sector, having grown by an astonishing 24 per cent since 2008.

What amazes me about this growing movement is that it is emerging against all the odds. This government’s rhetoric about supporting community owned renewable energy has not yet been backed up by an integrated plan to make it a reality. As many of the people in renewables co-operatives in the report say, there’s a lot stacked against communities on this – changing legislation and red tape, not to mention hard economic times.

For a start, government legislation keeps shifting, and there’s no better example of this than the government’s recent slashing of the solar Feed in Tariff. Whilst we recognise that the solar tariff was generous, the early and dramatic nature of the cut means several energy co-operatives have been put on hold. 

Like many, Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Group are campaigning on this in the hope that government will introduce the planned premium community tariff that encourages communities to create green energy together. But the fact that it was cut at such short notice has been a serious set back for many co-operatives.

Planning hurdles and bureaucracy are also a major problem for small community renewable schemes. With complex planning regulations and a wide range of organisations to deal with – the Environment Agency, Distribution Network Operators, local authorities, funders and so on – it is hard for small community renewable schemes, often set up and run by local volunteers, to get things set up.

River Bain Hydro, for example, has successfully set up a hydro electric scheme in North Yorkshire, despite spending a large proportion of its limited time negotiating with power companies because of a lack of co-ordination. As they explain:  “Between the power house and the grid, a distance of a hundred yards, we ended up with five different organisations involved in delivery.”

With a financial crisis, cuts and difficult environment, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people across the UK are coming together to create green energy themselves. The co-operative sector, which has always been there to support people trying to make a difference, is doing all it can to help – whether through schemes to support community shares or through The Co-operative Bank’s commitment to invest £1 billion in renewable energy by 2013, and its broader support for new co-operative enterprises.

As we all know now, we have built an economy based on a financial house of cards of banks, bonds and bail-outs. When you strip away the hype and hope, the only feasible alternative strategy is one that is based on bootstrap development of local enterprises such as these, making use of the three unlimited sources of wealth we have – people, ingenuity and renewable energy.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, the trade association for co-operative enterprises. To read the report visit www.uk.coop/renewable

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