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Community Energy - A New Frontier for Community Organising?

Jonathan Cox
Lead Organiser, Citizens Cymru Wales

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Just before Easter I was invited on a 'Knowledge Exchange' visit to a community-owned renewable energy project on the western end of the Brecon Beacons near Gwaun Cae Gurwen.  The most exciting bit was the chance to see a working wind turbine up close - and to go inside it!  The wind turbine itself was majestic and hypnotic - but the inspiring stories I was told about community ownership of renewable energy sources in Wales made me think if this was something our member organisations in Wales might want to explore. We have shown how we can apply our community organising method to sponsoring refugees - why not to generating renewable energy and tackling fuel poverty? We are gathering some Citizens leaders to have an initial discussion with Community Energy Wales soon, so if you are interested, let me know on jonathan.cox@citizenswales.org.uk.  In the meantime, hope you enjoy the following article.

Beca Roberts of Community Energy Wales writes...

Community Energy Fortnight (June 23rd - July 8th) is on the horizon, and with this year’s theme of ‘Energised Communities’ we will be celebrating those communities who are generating energy, tackling fuel poverty, improving their local environment, and innovating the energy system.

With over a hundred community energy projects (some still in planning stages) across Wales, from a Biomass system in Narberth used to heat a local pool to a 5000kW Solar project in the Gower, communities are a hotbed for innovation whilst also keeping local people at the heart of the renewable energy movement. 

Concern about the effect of our lives on the environment is on the rise, and so is interest in community energy and grassroots action  people are  taking matters into their own hands. Of course, starting a community energy project is a hugely daunting task, and whilst we here at Community Energy Wales can certainly support you on this front, we can also suggest some simpler ways to support clean, renewable community owned energy in Wales.

1. Support Community Share Offers

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Broadly speaking, community share schemes allow many people to each invest a small amount of capital in community projects through a co-operative approach. In this way, projects which may otherwise find fundraising difficult can raise significant capital sums.

One of the main reasons why social enterprises can find it difficult to compete with private enterprises is their lack of risk capital. This is mainly perpetuated by the belief that social enterprises should not have shareholders, who in a traditional business model seek maximum returns (profit!) on their investments.

But what if the shareholders and owners are not driven by a need to maximise profit and they had equal control over the scheme through membership of a co-operative?

Community shareholders are investing in local enterprises providing goods and services that meet local needs and expect only a modest return on their investment. This alignment of the interests of owners, investors and customers, is at the heart of the community enterprise movement. And this works best when the community aspect of the enterprise is the primary motive for investment.

Recently, this model has been used for community energy projects, with one of the biggest success stories coming from the rural Snowdonia village of Bethesda. There, a small cooperative venture developed by Ynni Ogwen Cyf (Ogwen Energy Ltd) had a vision to capture the power of the Ogwen river to produce electrical energy from Hydro technology producing an annual generation of approximately 500Mwh (enough to supply roughly 100 homes) whilst using the income generated to re-invest in local infrastructure and social initiatives.

They raised the £520,000 needed for the project in just under three months, with 85% of those who invested living locally to the project. This success reflects that the people of Bethesda are eager to invest and engage in projects which will assist in the creation of stronger, more independent and vibrant community.

Bethesda are not alone. Since 2009, almost 120,000 people have invested over £100 million to support over 350 community share projects throughout the UK.

You can invest in community energy schemes and become an equal member of the a community energy project through the principle of one member one vote.  There are currently two live community share offers in Wales that you or an organisation you are involved with could invest in providing expected returns of around 5%; YnNi Teg and Awel Aman Tawe.  Have a look at there offers and maybe you could make your money do something good.

YnNi Teg Community Share Offer: http://www.ynniteg.cymru/

Awel Aman Tawe Community Share Offer: http://www.awelamantawe.org.uk/

2. Join Energy Local Clubs

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It is becoming increasingly difficult to develop Community energy schemes since the UK government cut the Feed In Tariff (FITs) for renewable energy schemes.  It often makes smaller, community schemes less viable. 

However, Bethesda, North Wales is blazing ahead and has developed the first Energy Local club in the UK.  Here a unique partnership was formed between Co-Op Energy (the supplier), Energy Local CIC, a National Trust Hydro Turbine (the generator), and the homeowners of Bethesda (the club). Whilst the National Trust Hydro is generating the 97 homes which are part of the Bethesda Energy local club enjoy electricity rates of 7pence per KWh. When the hydro isn’t running the households are subject to a time of use tariff (pictured below) supplied by Co-Op Energy. As you can see, there are considerable savings to be made even if the hydro isn’t running!

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Following the successes of the first trial, Bethesda are moving on and are in discussions with a second small scale community supplier; the afore mentioned Ynni Ogwen Hydro. This partnership will mean that 150 more homes in the area will be able to become part of the scheme, and the income generated will be placed into a charity, which will invest in further social, economic and environmental projects. Community Energy Wales and Energy Local CIC are now looking to roll this out to a further 20 communities in Wales.  

If you are interested in finding a scheme locally as they develop or are interested in finding likeminded people in your community to look into setting up an energy local club then follow the link below and register your interest. 

http://www.energylocal.org.uk

3. Buy Green Energy

All community energy schemes must sell their electricity to someone.   Generally, they sell them to green energy suppliers.   However, if consumers don’t start demanding green energy then it means that there is less incentive for renewable energy to be developed.  It is essential that people who support the renewable energy transition buy their energy from a Renewable energy provider.

https://bigcleanswitch.org/ provide a comparison site for green energy suppliers.

There is a lot happening in the community energy sector and many different ways for you to get involved. Community Energy Wales can help you if you have an idea for a project of your own and you can stay connected to what is going on by signing up to the newsletter or on facebook (www.facebook.com/CommEnergyWales) and twitter (@CommEnergyWales).