Last week, Caroline Flint announced major reform of the energy market under a future Labour government, with supply and generation being split and a regulator given more teeth. SERA has welcomed this news.
But of course there are other ways to break the dominance of the Big Six energy companies and their reliance on outdated carbon-heavy or nuclear generation. And not just by using the Co-operative Energy instead – the energy supply company with 180,000 customers came out firmly in favour of Ed Miliband’s proposals.
All over the country, community energy organisations are springing up. Co-operatives, owned by local people each holding a small share, are generating solar power, wind power, even hydro. In Brixton, South London, Brixton Energy Co-op is installing solar panels on council housing blocks whilst creating skills and apprenticeships for local young people. Baywind in Cumbria was the first of now eight community-owned windfarms in England and Scotland. And in Devon, the Plymouth Energy Co-operative is helping people with their bills and energy efficiency as well as looking to invest in tidal and other renewable forms.
But the opportunities are much greater. 42 million people in the USA are members of energy co-ops. In Germany 46% of renewable energy is produced by community energy – here it’s just 0.3%. Berliners are even looking to take over the city’s electricity grid as a co-op. Recent research suggests that community energy could grow to 89 times its current size if existing barriers were lowered. There is much to learn from the way other countries whose companies own our energy providers, are developing their own community energy and renewables at a fast pace, while the UK suffers.
But there is still much to do. It was only after a great deal of intervention by Labour’s frontbench and work by the community energy sector that the recent Energy Act took account properly of community energy’s needs. DECC agreed to increase the feed-in tariff threshold to include larger community projects. A new ResPublica report says this should cover jointly owned community energy projects, not just those wholly-owned by the community. There are also opportunities here for a new generation of municipal energy companies, with local government empowered to make better use of its assets in partnership with communities.
This weekend the Co-operative Party is discussing community energy at its annual conference in Edinburgh. Gareth Thomas MP’s proposals would see up to 600,000 people coming together in local energy co-ops to own and produce their own energy and challenge the Big Six.
In a letter to the FT last week in the wake of Ed Miliband’s energy freeze, leading community energy players said, “This debate cannot be about big state versus big business. But about big problems versus big opportunities. The energy market is a perfect illustration of why economic and social policy can and must be mutually reinforcing in 21st century Britain.” SERA agrees.