A new government fund is aiming to put power in the hands of the people. The Urban Community Energy Fund launched in November gives community groups in England the chance to bid for grants of up to £20,000 and loans up to £130,000 for their own renewable energy schemes.
So far, renewable energy strategy has been focused on individuals installing solar panels to power their own homes, and to some extent feed any surplus back into the national grid. Community power stations are a logical extension of this idea.
The main use of the fund is anticipated to be the installation of solar arrays on local buildings like schools and factories, using the energy to power the local area and selling off the excess; though the government also cites the construction of an anaerobic digestion plant to create energy from waste as another possible application.
Precedent comes from Harvey's Brewery in East Sussex. In the south east's first community project, the brewery's solar array has lowered its energy bills, while the community benefits from money made under the Feed In Tariff.
In a visit to the brewery, energy secretary Ed Davey had this to say on the fund: “I want to give more people the power to generate their own electricity... That's why we've pledged £10 million, so communities can play their part in generating renewable power at a local level.”
The fund also comes with the first shake up in community energy schemes since the launch of the Community Energy Strategy in January 2014. Registered charities can now receive the same benefits as other community groups. Two projects – two communities or one community and one commercial – each up to 5MW, can now share a single grid connection and still receive separate Feed in Tariffs (FIT). And perhaps most importantly, FITs will now be guaranteed for an extra six months, so projects have more time to get off the ground.
Germany in particular has had marked success in using the FIT model to increase renewable energy supply, so the new fund is welcome news for the renewables sector and Britain's long term energy security – particularly in light of the unexpected scrapping of solar subsidies that muted the UK's nascent solar industry.
It's also welcome news for engineers. If the scheme is a success it will create significant amounts of work within the community energy sector, both in initial construction and implementation, and in the ongoing operation of the community hubs.
And of course, while renewable energy is still a relatively niche concern in this country, the hope is that a shot in the arm like this will lead to exponential growth in the future. Renewable energy projects are already the most popular community investment. As track records become more proven, they will begin to attract more mainstream investors.
And that's good for all of us.