Diversifying energy ownership needs a more radical approach
Community energy provides an opportunity to diversify Scotland’s energy ownership from the dominance of big energy companies. The Scottish Government has published a Community Energy Statement that sets out the measures they are taking to encourage the development of community energy.
The Scottish Government’s ambition for community energy is that it provides an opportunity to spread the benefits of the rich energy resource with which Scotland is blessed. Support for community projects reflects their importance in empowering communities to take control of their own destiny and make the most of their own local resources.
Community energy covers a spectrum of activity – from direct ownership of energy assets, through joint ventures to community benefits payments. These enable communities to take a stake in the full range of heat and electricity generating technologies, from onshore wind, to solar PV and solar thermal, hydro, biomass and heat pumps.
The ambition is to see a fairly modest 500 MW of renewables in community and local ownership by 2020. This has been independently estimated to create some £2.2 billion over the operational lifetime of those projects. There is already 285 MW operating in 2013, including 43 MW of community energy. Most benefit comes from community benefit payments made by commercial developers. In the past 12 months this amounts to about £6 million from over 3 GW of (mainly) onshore wind schemes. While the cash is no doubt welcome to the communities concerned, this is not community ownership.
Support for community energy is currently delivered through the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) delivered by Local Energy Scotland, and the Renewable Energy Investment Fund (REIF) delivered by Scottish Investment Bank. These schemes provide funding and technical support. While these initiatives are welcome, fully functioning direct ownership is limited to small scale, mostly rural hydro and wind farms.
Continuing down this path is unlikely to deliver a radical change in energy ownership in Scotland. There are substantial barriers to this form of community ownership as the Statement recognises. Not the least of which is the UK government’s volatile energy policy. Long term investment in energy needs a stable pricing regime. Another is the speed of connection to the grid, something that other European countries accelerate through public ownership of the grid.
Experience from Europe indicates that to make serious steps in diversifying ownership requires new public sector entrants to the market, primarily local authorities, although Scottish Water could also be a bigger player. The Statement recognises that the formation of Local Authority Energy Supply Companies (ESCOs) may be an opportunity to improve competition and offer a wider range of tariffs. CARES support has recently been awarded to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to explore the potential to establish an Outer Hebrides Energy Supply Company (ESCO), which could enter the UK electricity market in 2016-2017 retailing green Hebridean electricity to local and export markets.
The next big step requires new municipal entrants to the energy market in urban areas. Cities should be engaging in the energy supply market where this can support efforts to tackle energy affordability and promote local generation. The Institute for Public Policy Research paper ‘City Energy, A new Powerhouse for Britain’, July 2014 showed one way forward.
This Scottish Government Statement is a reasonable description of the relatively small scale efforts made to date to encourage community energy ownership. However, the ambition is modest, lacking proposals to seriously diversify ownership in Scotland. The next big step requires support for local authorities to return to their 19th century role as an energy provider. They can do this on their own or in partnership with cooperatives. This model brings significant benefits to communities across Europe with lower energy prices and income generation for public services. I set out this approach in more detail in the energy chapter of the Red Paper on Scotland.
For all the words in this latest publication, the reader is left with the overwhelming impression that the Scottish Government is not in the business of taking on the big energy companies. As they have not been over energy retail prices. A few rural wind farms in community ownership is not going to make the radical diversification we really need.
- Posted in: Energy policy