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Energy for tomorrow?

ALAN SIMPSON says community energy projects are transforming the sector across Europe - but thanks to the faithless coalition Britain is being left behind. We need to unite behind a new agenda

This is a story that rises in hope and admiration. It could just as easily be sunk by the cynicism or shallowness of government.

The Dancing Ladies of Gigha are not an Abba tribute band. They are a small example of the triumph - and tragedy - of Britain's engagement with the community energy revolution taking place around us.

Gigha is a tiny Scottish island and the "ladies" in question are community-owned wind turbines. Nothing new there.

What makes them noteworthy is that, as an alternative to laying additional and expensive new cabling to the mainland, the community are constructing a 75,000-litre battery store for up to 100 kilowatts of their own electricity. 

This isn't a lot, and doesn't compare with storage experiments in Australia that hold up to three megawatts of electricity. But it will provide backup power to the island for up to 12 hours. 

Gigha is one of a myriad of experiments taking place into how we store renewable energy and how we will balance tomorrow's energy grids. Its significance is as an exemplar of what happens when communities shift from being mere consumers of energy to being its producers, distributors and storers. It is the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies.

At the other end of the country I could probably have constructed similar examples around the plans of Cornwall Energy or Weybridge Renewable Energy Network. All involve fundamentally different approaches to tomorrow's energy generation and new grid systems that will underpin it.

The National Audit Office has just warned that we must expect 17 years of "above inflation" price rises in our energy bills to pay for replacing Britain's ageing electricity grid infrastructure.

Yet no-one seems to question whether tomorrow needs to be designed and financed differently from today.

First of all, we forget that the grid used to belong to us. Paid for out of taxation, it was a public asset not a private trading one.

Before that, energy supply revolved around city and county systems that were municipal companies, not transnational corporations. 

A glittering array of technologies has already transformed the way we communicate with each other. Tomorrow's grid systems will be transformed in the same way.

Decentralisation will be back with a vengeance. It will not want the sort of grid infrastructure and finance currently demanded by energy companies.

Tomorrow's "consumers" will want to be "prosumers" - producing as well as consuming their own energy.

Communities - or whole cities - will want to become the owners of distribution, storage and demand reduction systems that underpin their energy security.

Britain is a long way behind other countries in the socialisation of its energy system, but it is worth looking at where Germany has got to in the seven years of a "power to the people" shift in energy policy.

It isn't just that Germany has more installed renewable energy capacity than the level of UK peak demand. The more critical point is that Germany's Big Four energy utilities have only 5 per cent of the renewable market - a big difference from the 98 per cent control of Britain's Big Six.

 

No less important is the increasing slice of the cake taken up by community energy projects. There are over 600 community energy co-operatives in Germany and some are already moving into community ownership of their local grid systems.

You might have thought the British government would have seen this as something of a political lifeline. After all, the coalition agreement proudly declared it would promote "community-owned renewable energy schemes where local people benefit from the power produced."

This is a brave and unambiguous commitment.

Unfortunately it is something ministers have been rowing back from as fast as they possibly can. 

Despite having a basket full of bureaucratic hurdles and financial disincentives thrown in their way, Britain's community energy co-operatives refuse to die off. So the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been charged with a duty to emasculate the "community ownership" commitment under the guise of support.

A "consultation" exercise is under way that would be pure comedy if it weren't tragedy.

Those who responded to DECC's invitation to submit ideas on community energy should have got the message when none of those suggesting policy change were invited to join the working party.

When Friends of the Earth specifically asked to join in it received a flat refusal. 

It already appears that DECC's approach to the "community-owned" undertaking will be to completely ignore it. Nothing will address whether this means 80 per cent or 100 per cent community ownership.

It won't consider whether it might mean 50 per cent plus one if the other partners were the local authority or a pension fund. None of the "socialised ownership" permutations are being considered. DECC has made it clear that even 20 per cent community ownership would be a bridge too far.

The lobbying interests of big energy have clearly paid off. They want "community" to be a statement of location not ownership. Nothing is to move towards a more pluralistic market that might force prices down rather than up.

So what is the big idea that DECC hopes to sell to gullible consultees in this process?

So far it looks like being "mentoring." Every one of the 50 or so community energy co-operatives in Britain currently survives despite government policy rather than because of it. Each has a litany of complaints about obstructions thrown in its path.

DECC's plan is to enlist support from within the movement's own ranks to share ideas and best practice about how to get round the obstacles in the road. It is at this point that an outburst from my granddad comes to mind. 

 

My granddad was a great believer in the NHS. It gave him the first set of teeth he had had in a long time.

Later on there was a discussion on telly about what the NHS should cover and whether teeth should be considered a luxury or not. Someone was foolishly arguing that, provided you chose the right foods, it was perfectly possible to get by if you just taught the poor to masticate properly, using their gums rather than teeth.

It threw my Grandad into a fury. He didn't want mentoring in mastication. He wanted his own set of teeth. So it is with community energy.

DECC could easily give the movement teeth by:

Placing a duty on the grid to take clean energy before dirty
Removing the 10 per cent penalty on solar installations of more than 20 properties
De-risking the movement by underwriting insurance costs
Taking feed-in tariffs payments out of a fixed budget straitjacket
Fast-tracking planning approval where there is over 80 per cent community ownership, 
Letting communities share their own energy - at wholesale prices - before supplying it to the grid
Socialising the cost of grid connection for community energy co-ops

DECC, of course, will do none of these.

The whole consultation is designed to shore up the power of big energy and marginalise the power of communities, limiting their ability to reduce energy costs and corporate profiteering.

Across the channel other elements within the community energy revolution are already moving into the "ownership" of local grids and energy distribution.

Hamburg has already voted to socialise its energy grid.

Despite this option getting 83 per cent of the votes in Berlin the city was cheated out of doing so by missing the turnout threshold by 0.9 per cent. They will be back.

In the US whole towns are looking at going off-grid rather than rebuilding an outdated infrastructure.

Even National Grid recognises that tomorrow's smart grids will have to accommodate smart citizens.

By 2030 these will be owners of maybe five million solar roofs, 10 million heat pumps and up to 30 million electric vehicles. All will want to feed into, as well as draw from, the energy grid.

DECC may want to domesticate the public but the sheer pace of technology change will emancipate the energy sector in ways that are beyond the power of Big Energy to resist.

Britain's tragedy lies in the absence of a leadership willing to drive this revolution. Our energy debate, and what passes for "consultation," is a hostage to smaller minds. Bloody masticators.

 

Alan Simpson is an independent energy adviser and former Labour MP for Nottingham South.

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