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As a coalition of UK charities calls for an increased focus on community-owned renewables, Martin Wright reflects on the potential of local energy ownership

High on a Cumbrian hillside, a line of elegant windmills is turning slowly in the breeze. You might think local people would scowl at the sight of them. Instead, many are smiling – for the simple reason that the turbines are theirs, and are making them money as well as power.

In a valley in the far south of Brazil, a group of farmers are celebrating. They’ve just switched on a new hydro station, harnessing the free flow of a stream as it races down the slope. At a stroke, they’ve won their energy independence: no longer at the mercy of power cuts and price hikes, no longer reliant on oil-fired electricity from a distant power plant.

And in a not-quite-so-remote village in Suffolk, a bunch of school kids are pointing excitedly at the shiny new solar array on the roof of their classroom.

These are just three examples of a wave of community-scale renewable energy schemes that are transforming lives and livelihoods across the world.

In a country like the UK, where energy simply comes into our homes down the wire or pipe, it can be hard to remember that it’s generated at all, let alone feel that how it’s generated is something over which we can have any control. That can leave people feeling impotent: you can read about the energy crisis and soaring prices, but you can’t do anything about it for yourself.

Unless, that is, you make your own. For many, that’s an increasingly alluring prospect: the chance to take control over one of life’s essentials. Small wonder, perhaps, that the single most popular business for the UK’s burgeoning array of community investment schemes is renewable energy.

Much of this has been organised through the Energy4All initiative set up by Baywind – which owns those Cumbrian turbines and was itself the country’s first energy co-op back in 1997. And interest continues to grow: over 30 new renewables co-operatives have been registered since 2008 alone.

In 2011, The Co-operative Group made a public commitment to invest £1bn in renewables by 2013, and it is already over halfway towards that goal. Of this sum, £100m has been set aside specifically for community renewables.

The appeal of community energy doesn’t just lie in a sense of independence and the chance to earn a few pounds. Schemes can be designed to prioritise the needs of people suffering from fuel poverty, and provide training and jobs for locals in a sector widely seen as one of the big growth areas for the coming decades.

There are, of course, some pretty hefty barriers. Finance, for one. Renewable ‘fuel’ may be free – at least in the case of sun, wind and water – but the capital costs in capturing it can be prohibitive without the backing of a large company.

Then there’s public opinion. While many people love the idea of having their own wind, solar or hydro plant, others are horrified at the thought of any change to treasured landscapes.

But these needn’t be insurmountable obstacles. The capital costs of most renewable technologies may be daunting, but they are also falling – at a time when energy prices look set to rise for years to come. So the economic logic remains strong.

Public opinion is in some ways a tougher nut to crack. In an effort to find common ground, Forum for the Future, Carbon Leapfrog and The Co-operative brought together representatives of some of the UK’s leading bodies with an interest in and influence over the countryside. These included the National Trust, the Church of England, the Women’s Institute and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

As Forum for the Future’s Will Dawson points out: “Together, they have around 12 million members; many groups that have campaigned for or against renewables in the UK will carry one or more of their membership cards.”

A group of these representatives visited a range of community renewables projects in Germany, where enthusiasm for local energy runs high. “Germany showed us communities offer a really serious and cost-effective route to renewables,” says Dawson.

Research by Valley Wind, a local group hoping to develop a 6MW wind farm in Yorkshire’s Colne Valley, found that people were much better disposed to a scheme drawn up by their neighbours – with clear community benefits – rather than by a distant energy company.

But there is one form of local opposition to energy which could actually boost the appeal of community renewables. The last year has seen rising concern over the potential impact of shale gas – arguably one of the world’s least sustainable fuel sources. The Co-operative has already started supporting local groups campaigning against its development in their areas. For Paul Monaghan, head of social goals and sustainability, that creates an opportunity for an alternative energy narrative.

“Say you have a situation where local people are alarmed about the possibility of a shale gas fracking rig turning up on their doorstep. You can use that to open up conversations about other possibilities, one of which might be community renewables.”

But the simplest argument for community renewables is probably that straightforward sense of ownership. As one of the supporters of Green Energy Nayland, the group which came together to put solar panels on the roof of that Suffolk school, says: “The children are very aware of the fact that the money to do this came from in and around Nayland, not from some big company somewhere else. If you own it, you care about it; you want to stick up for it.

“It’s the difference between having something done to you and choosing to do it for yourself.”

Article courtesy of Green Futures, www​.greenfutures​.org

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