UK solar industry embraces community energy strategy

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The U.K. government’s Department of Energy & Climate Change has today unveiled its Community Energy Strategy in a move that has won the backing of the Solar Trade Association (STA).

The strategy has been introduced in order to increase government backing for shared community energy, with the DECC creating a €12 million Urban Community Energy Fund to help kickstart community energy generation projects in England and Wales.

While shying away from imposing a specific sharing figure, the DECC has instead suggested that large scale solar farm developers offer a "meaningful share" of their renewable energy projects to local communities.

"For too long, community energy has been a policy footnote, with all the focus on big generators and individual households – all but ignoring the potential of communities to play a key role," said a DECC statement by energy and climate change minister Ed Davey.

Early estimates from the government predict that community owned projects could generate enough clean energy to power one million homes by 2020, with 51% of householders polled by the government stating that they would invest in these projects if it meant that their energy bills would be lowered. The FIT threshold for such community-backed PV initiatives may also be doubled from 5 MW to 10 MW in an effort to make rooftop arrays on offices, schools and public buildings more financially viable. A decision on this is expected in Spring.

Proposals welcomed

The proposals were welcomed by a number of the U.K’s leading energy organizations and associations. Renewable Energy Association (REA) chief executive Nina Skorupska said: "We are delighted that the government is really serious about helping ordinary people become active participants in the energy economy. People are beginning to rethink energy, seeing that it doesn’t have to be expensive and polluting, and that they can even supply clean energy themselves. This is why we are seeing such excellent growth in the number of community energy companies."

The REA has been invited by the government to work with the STA and other energy associations in order to nurture the community energy sector and help generate a level of ambition for partly or wholly-owned community power generation. The STA’s head of external affairs, Leonie Greene, said: "No technology democratizes ownership of the power sector better than solar. The U.K.’s solar power output is already owned by half a million solar households and by new independent companies outside the ‘Big Six’ utilities, as well as a few thousand businesses and communities.

"It is clear that solar is already delivering a revolution in ownership, as well as in clean power generation. The further scope for community ownership of solar across the UK is tremendous. However, in practical terms, fulfilling this exciting vision does require government to ensure the Feed-in Tariff can support the take-off of community-scale schemes."

However, the STA did outline some of their concerns with the Community Energy Strategy, namely its proposal to help fund community energy schemes from an "Allowable Solutions" fund. The STA believe that this fund refers to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) roll-back on delivering Zero Carbon Homes by 2016. The allowable solutions could potentially allow housebuilders to simply contribute to a shared "funding pot" rather than incorporate solar PV or BIPV into new buildings.

The STA is also pressing for the definition of community solar to be widened to include socially oriented organizations such as schools, public service providers and social housing. To achieve this, the STA is urging the DECC to reverse the reduction in FIT support for social housing providers that install large volumes of solar PV.

"The Strategy is a good start, but it would be perverse if community solar were funded at the expense of incorporating solar thermal and solar PV in new homes and buildings where it is sensible and cost-effective to do so," concluded Greene. "Building out the huge carbon impact of our built environment is essential to tackle climate change."

On the same day that the Strategy was announced, the DECC was criticized by the Guardian newspaper for cutting climate change spending by almost 50%. The paper reported that data gleaned under the freedom of information rules show that annual spending on the impacts of climate change was just €21 million for 2013-14 – down from €35 million in 2012-13.

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