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Power to the people

Community owned renewables can generate green energy and a long-term source of income for the local neighbourhood.

18-03-2014 | Communities across Scotland have been the first to reap the benefits of the abundant resources nature provides to them. They’ve pioneered community renewable energy projects, collectively developed and owned by local people. Generating green energy and a long-term source of income for their community, renewables projects represent a way to contribute to our energy security and ensure the sustainable future of neighbourhoods across the UK. And with a new government commitment to community energy, there’s huge potential for many more communities to follow, putting power and profits back in the hands of the people.

Empowered communities

Odds are it's another blustery day on the Isle of Barra. As the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland it bears the brunt of whatever weather the Atlantic throws at it. Not that the locals mind. Every rotation of the Isle's new wind turbine's blades means more electricity generated and more money into the community coffers.

Barra turbine 1  

Barra's one of a number of pioneering communties which have developed their own wind turbine.

The turbine stands on land owned by the Scottish government at Gòb Sgùrabhal, Barra's most north-westerly point. The wind resource is so good there that it's expected to be one of the productive turbines of its size in Western Europe. Good news for local people as it's set to provide the island communities of Barra and neighbouring Vatersay with a steady, reliable annual income of £50,000- 100,000 for years to come. With its turbine's official opening on 28 February, Barra is the latest Scottish community to exploit their renewable resources, but it's by no means the first.

An abundance of wind combined with a strong community ownership movement made the Scottish highlands and islands a natural incubator for community renewables. Some of the first projects, such as the hydro-electric schemes at Assynt and Knoydart, have been running for the best part of 15 years now, and the communities of the islands of Eigg, Gigha and Westray have all taken pioneering steps in their own way. Ten years ago Gigha found a new home for three turbines from Cumbria after they were replaced with newer models, Eigg switched to 100% renewable power in February 2008 after decades of reliance on diesel generators, and the following year Westray was the first community to develop its own large-scale turbine from scratch.

Reaping the rewards

Head from Barra towards Scotland's most Easterly point and eventually you'll reach Fetterangus in Aberdeenshire. Their renewable energy project is only slightly ahead of Barra's, with a community wind turbine that was commissioned on Christmas Eve last year. The £1.5 million scheme, which like Barra has been financed by Triodos Bank, should generate £75,000 a year for the community. With a population of around 500 people, that's a significant boost to local funding of £150 per head.

Barra turbine 3

Members of the local community gather for Barra wind turbine's official opening.

Project leader, Colin Wood explains what it means to the community. "The wind turbine is going to transform Fetterangus. We have been looking for a regular, sustainable income that will help us fund projects in our village and the turbine is the perfect solution."

That transformation means renovating the village hall so it can be enjoyed by the parents' association, pensioners club, scout and guides. They plan to purchase playing fields for the local football club and develop a new sports complex which will include a biomass heating system. And perhaps their most important ambition is the construction of affordable homes, to enable younger generations to stay in the area, keeping families together and conserving the life-blood of the community.

Elsewhere in the UK examples of large scale community renewables projects are further between but starting to filter through. One that's currently in development, Halton Lune Hydro, will provide green energy to Triodos Bank customer Lancaster Co-housing, as well as an income for local community projects. And with around 1,650 members, Westmill Solar Park on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border is believed to be the largest community-owned photovoltaic power station in the world.

While the foundations are being laid, you only have to look to Europe to see how much more could be achieved. Half of Germany's renewable energy capacity is locally owned and in Denmark more than 150,000 families are members of wind turbine co-operatives, owning more than 3,000 turbines which provide around a quarter of the country's overall energy production.

Secrets of success

One of the barriers to more communities realising their renewable ambitions is the huge amount of time and effort needed to get a project off the ground. The Fetterangus wind turbine project for instance was set up in 2004. A key ingredient for success is a cohesive community that's really behind the project. In that respect community schemes have an advantage over privately owned projects - those who initially oppose development often come round when they realise that the income generated will come back to the community.

Barra turbine 2

Barra community wind turbine is expected to be one of the most productive for its size in Western Europe.

Successful projects tend to have a committed core team of individuals with the time to put into the project. Often they're retired with experience of relevant skills in areas such as management and civil engineering. Unlike professional renewable energy developers, communities haven't normally been through the process before and each step is a steep learning curve. But community renewables organisations and committed lenders like Triodos can help support them on the journey.

"Out of all the banks, Triodos Bank was the most sympathetic to the project, understanding our aims, and supporting us throughout," says Wood. "It has been a long journey, involving dozens of local people and lots of hurdles but it has definitely been worth it."

Community energy strategy

Now a new commitment by government could make it easier for communities to achieve their potential. In January, the government published the first community energy strategy, setting out the role that communities can play in helping to meet the UK's energy and climate change challenges, including supporting a sustainable and secure energy system.

"The Community Energy Strategy marks a change in the way we approach powering our homes and businesses - bringing communities together and helping them save money - and make money too", said Energy and Climate Change Minister, Greg Barker. "We want to help more consumers of energy to become producers of energy and in doing so help to break the grip of the dominant big energy companies."

Modelling for the DECC suggests that by 2020 community electricity could generate between 0.5GW and 3GW from a mixture of solar PV, onshore wind and hydro. At the top end of this range it could provide enough electricity for over 1 million homes - 1.4% of the UK's energy need. The analysis also suggests that beyond 2020, community electricity has the potential to make an even greater contribution.

Practical measures include a new £10 million Urban Community Energy Fund to support communities in England looking to explore the feasibility of, and planning for, electricity and heat projects. This complements existing funds for communities in Scotland, Wales and rural England. There will also be a consultation on doubling the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) maximum capacity ceiling to 10MW for community projects. And the Strategy also promises new working groups bringing together regulators and industry to tackle issues communities face on planning, electricity network connections and hydropower.

All these can help, but arguably the most positive thing to take from the Community Energy Strategy is not in the practical measures it promises, but the fact that it exists at all. It shows that government has recognised the huge potential of renewable energy, and the broad political appeal of a decentralised system that puts power and profits back in the hands of the people.

words Will Ferguson photography Abigail Treffry

Energy and climate

Triodos Bank has over 25 years' experience financing renewable energy. We're financing a transition to a renewable society.

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