People power: How a well-planned net zero strategy could supercharge community energy – by Richard Leach

Published: 11 October 2019

How do we ensure that community energy projects benefit both the communities involved and the wider energy system? We think there is a missing part of how energy works in the UK which, if introduced, could provide a significant boost to local and community energy projects: local area energy planning.

The need for detailed energy planning at a local level comes from a very simple insight: no two areas are the same. This is going to be particularly important when we come to the next phase of decarbonisation.

Decarbonising energy use in buildings, particularly heat, is arguably the toughest challenge ahead for reaching net zero (only 4% of UK homes currently have low carbon heating). It will involve major changes to energy infrastructure and buildings.

But the decarbonisation pathway for Cornwall is very different to that of Newcastle or Glasgow. Local stakeholders need to understand what the ‘right’ mix of technologies and networks would be for their area, recognising geographical differences as well as reflecting local political preferences. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution that gives minimal regard to these characteristics is a potentially expensive strategy, as well likely to cause local resentment.

A more sensible approach, therefore, is to understand locally specific options, based on a detailed picture of each area’s energy system, which is precisely what the Catapult’s Local Area Energy Planning process provides. It explores all the options, determines their impact on the wider energy system, and lets local stakeholders identify the least cost choices based on credible evidence.

Bury's 2050 energy systems diagram

Illustrative example of a spatial energy plan developed via Local Area Energy Planning

What does this mean for community energy? Community energy organisations may already have lots of knowledge which could contribute to getting a plan right, and are in a great position to take aspects of it forward. Their local knowledge and experience in engaging with local people on energy issues would clearly be invaluable to the process.

The plan will also help identify where a particular project could add most value to the system. As we move to Net Zero, the need for community projects that address a local energy issue are only likely to grow.

To get a sense of the opportunity, we commissioned Regen to find out the potential benefits for community energy organisations and the LAEP process of engaging with one another.

Based on interviews with community energy organisations and local authorities, we uncovered the following key findings:

There are potential economic, social and environmental benefits for communities

By engaging with a plan, communities would be able to understand what parts of the future energy system they could benefit from, for example through asset ownership, the revenue it generates, reduced energy costs, and a boost to local employment and growth.

Whilst the environmental benefits are plain to see – lower carbon emissions – perhaps less so are the social benefits. Engagement in a significant long-term project, such as development of new renewable energy generation, involves local people in a range of activities, improving skills and confidence.

By making collective decisions about the use and distribution of income, local communities also develop greater self-determination through the direct control of local resources.

It will help ensure community groups are ‘transition savvy’

The interviewees believed LAEP would help community energy groups find their place in the new, low carbon energy system, and help them decide which are the best projects for them to focus on. The whole system perspective of LAEP (i.e. to consider how change to one part of the system affect the whole) would help broaden their knowledge and perspective.

The process could also provide evidence to inform grassroots action, for example on decarbonisation and addressing climate change.

It could encourage buy-in from residents

High quality, broad engagement was considered vital to encourage buy-in for any plan from local people and could help address the common criticism that top-down plans often fail to account for local circumstances.

Community energy organisations have close relationships with many stakeholders including consumers, private and social landlords, and investors. As a trusted local organisation with a history of local engagement, they could facilitate positive engagement with the wider local community.

Overall, community energy representatives were overwhelmingly positive about local area energy planning. Done well, the interviewees believed it would probably add confidence to community energy plans and support inward public and private investment from landowners, funders and investors.

Community energy organisations are important local energy system actors and agents of change. They’re ambitious in what they’re trying to achieve and fully on-board with the drive to eliminate carbon emissions from the energy system.

These characteristics, combined with their knowledge of the local energy system, make them key players in ensuring that the local energy planning process maximises the benefits it could bring to the public.

To unlock this potential, we are working with Ofgem and Government to test the potential of rolling out such an approach more widely. If this happens, we think it could provide a boost for community energy projects and wider decarbonisation efforts.

Richard Leach is a Local Area Energy Planning Consultant at Energy Systems Catapult

Find out more about Local Area Energy Planning.