page title icon Workshop 4: “Our Magical Mystery Tour”

Workshop 4: Local renewable energy generation & community energy

Reading time: 6 mins

This time we went on a site visit together to learn about how communities come together to own their own energy infrastructure and run businesses that benefit local people socially, financially and environmentally – on the mini-bus all the way to very sunny Liverpool.

Both our groups were welcomed warmly on two consecutive days by Squash Nutrition in Liverpool. Squash is a female-run community-owned business who run a food shop and cafe, as well as a beautiful urban garden (on a former car park) and training programmes for female business leaders. The building they hosted us in is newly built to a very high environmental standard with a beautiful backyard and just an all round good feel to it.

Becky gave us a tour of the garden and the building and told us the story of Squash, which she started with her friend over 10 years ago as a local resident. Everything they do is about food and sustainability, bringing people together from all walks of life in the area and providing spaces to learn and share, resist isolation, try out new ideas and seed local businesses (for example a compost business which is now very successful across the region). 

We were particularly impressed with the concept of a  100 year plan they are developing for their street. That is proper long term planning! Becky ended her presentation in their food business talking about the importance of getting the ‘business’ bit of the community business right. If the business itself is not sustainable, it is impossible to fund the community benefits that the organisation offers, in the form of good local jobs, training, healthy affordable food and spaces to be together. 

This was a fantastic leeway into the presentation we were given that day respectively by Helen Seagrave, community energy manager for Electricity North West and Kate Gilmartin from the Rural Community Energy Fund about community energy. In a nutshell, community energy is, we learned, citizens coming together to own and manage energy infrastructure like for example renewable energy generation in the form of wind turbines or solar fields. Or they might offer services like Carbon Coop that make our homes and businesses more energy efficient. So again, these are businesses that are owned by a group of local people or a community of interest.

Many of these businesses are organised as community benefit societies, a form of governance that can be traced back to the first cooperatives, which started as a movement just up the road in Rochdale. The idea being that impoverished workers would come together to invest 1£ (at the time quite a bit of money) to invest in stock for a local shop where people could buy affordable goods. But it is important to say that the idea behind this way of doing business that prioritises social over financial value can be found in many cultures around the world with different names.

Energy cooperatives have existed across Europe and the United States ever since energy infrastructure was needed and especially in remote places where the public service didn’t reach. However it was really the combination of privatising public services and the first public understanding of impending climate change that these forms of energy infrastructure ownership became popular again as a way for normal people to push the change to renewable energy. 

Kate and Helen introduced us to the very first energy cooperative in the UK – Baywind Energy, which was started in Cumbria with the very first community wind turbine. Since then in the UK we have a growing sector of community energy mainly generating renewable energy, but also branching into other services, even transport in the form of members’ electric car sharing clubs, etc.  

The way that these projects are set up is really well explained here. You can become a member of a local initiative paying 1 pound or you can become an investor member, owning a share with an annual return on investment (around 3%). Every member has only 1 democratic vote in the business, meaning that it doesn’t matter if you paid 1 pound or 10,000, everybody has the same voting rights. These organisations have what is called an ‘asset lock’ meaning the infrastructure cannot just be sold off for profit. And they are not-for-profit, which doesn’t mean they are rubbish businesses that don’t make a surplus, it just means that the surplus is invested into social or environmental initiatives. This is often organised via a community benefit fund, which members can decide the purpose of. This might be for microfunding for new projects developed locally or education programmes or energy efficiency work.

Finally the really impressive stats that Kate gave us was around ‘community wealth building. The average household spend on energy in the UK is about £2000 per year. In Oldham that amounts to about £500,000 per year. That money is currently spent with big global companies (extracting maximum profit for their shareholders) and leaves the local economy. So if we were to generate more energy locally, owned by people locally this money could benefit our economy. This mechanism is often called community wealth building – you might have heard that term before.

And of course the amazing thing about these kind of organisations is that they are often sharing communities, ways for people to create community and be part of a wider network of people who want to cut carbon emissions. 

To find out about the different case studies and how people got going, you can watch Kate’s presentation on our website and follow the additional resources at the end of this article.

Taking inspiration from the morning presentations and Squash itself, both participant groups began to dream about what they could do in their neighbourhoods. 

For Westwood,  participants thought about how the community centre could become an energy hub for the local area. Providing information, courses, and signposting for the local community about green energy, energy-saving measures in the home, alongside running courses on improvements residents can make to their homes.

After watching the morning presentation, thoughts also turned to community energy and how this could be possible in the neighbourhood. Their questions focused on the details of connections, space requirements, and investment return and how community energy could be achieved in the urban area. The group worked with a map of locations for solar renewable generation in their ward and identified potential roofs for community owned solar to make sense. This would be because the offtaker for the energy in the building uses a lot of energy in the daytime (when solar panels produce energy) and is likely to stay in that building long enough to ensure that the electricity can be sold steadily and of course if the owner of the building is known to the community and likely to want to work together.

Later in the day, as we walked to the Squash’ community garden, our younger Westwood participants commented on the E-bike drop off point in the street. The E-bikes affirmed a thought that had been percolating in previous workshop sessions where we had discussed transport and movement in the neighbourhoods….

“We could easily do this in Westwood, and we could set it up through the community centre, be a hub for sustainable travel.

Once again, they linked back into the idea of the centre being a space for community energy in all forms, and how they could create social enterprises to support this.

The group were also inspired by the idea of a longer vision for the area, inspired by the Squash 100 year street idea, they have begun to think about how longer term planning could create more cohesive projects, and move them away from one off short term schemes which often fail to leave an impact or legacy.

For both groups, the power of sharing case studies was evident. Seeing examples of how other community groups have moved into the energy space with support and guidance was a kickstart moment for ideas. 

Sholver were clear from the morning’s discussions, a form of community-owned renewable energy on land adjacent to the building should be explored. 

The questions came thick and fast for Kate, and by lunchtime, there was a buzz of action from the group. 

Here again, Squash provided the backdrop to learning and discovering ideas; the garden and cafe serving the community in so many different ways felt like a project that could be replicated in Sholver, providing volunteer opportunities in a collaborative manner to continue work started in their community garden. 

There were also thoughts on making the community centre itself more energy-efficient, lowering the ceilings and looking at more sustainable ways to heat and light the space.

As the day drew to a close, our participants had some final thoughts on what should come next, agreeing that there needed to be a mixture of long term projects and ones where results and changes could be seen quickly to help the wider community understand their goals and aspirations. 

Resources and interesting links on Renewables and Community Energy

Watch the full presentation on Community Energy

Watch a conversation with Afsheen Kabir Rashid from Repowering

Community Energy England – sector organisation, lots of resource and support

Electricity North West – learning pages on community energy

Energy4all – works with communities to develop renewable energy projects

Sharenergy – helps communities to develop renewable energy projects

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