Energy secretary Ed Davey has lifted the lid on the government’s new community strategy.

The new strategy will see the creation of a £10 million Urban Community Energy Fund to complement the existing £15 million Rural Community Energy Fund as well as the formation of a dedicated Community Energy Unit within the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). In addition, the government is quadrupling the Green Deal Communities Scheme to £80 million.

Under the new plans, community groups are able to apply for up to £20,000 to undertake feasibility work and apply for loans of up to £130,000 to help complete projects.

Launching the strategy, Davey noted that the UK is at a “turning point in developing true community energy in the UK”. He added: “This strategy aims to help these existing groups grow and to inspire more to set up and expand. We want to tap into the enthusiasm and commitment that’s so evident in community groups across the country – whether it’s for helping people struggling with energy bills or for playing a part in the global race to decarbonise our society.”

The new strategy identifies several barriers that are currently holding back community energy developments, namely: the need for stronger partnerships, improved skills and capacity, better access to finance, and more sharing of best practice and measuring impact.

The government hopes that the new practices put in place will help one million homes benefit from community-generated energy by 2020 and is championing community energy generation as an effective way of combating escalating energy bills. Modelling undertaken by DECC predicts that there could be between 0.5-3GW of community electricity capacity by 2020.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) welcomed “many elements” of today’s announcement, stating that the new community energy fund plugs an “obvious gap” in the policy framework. STA head of external affairs Leonie Greene said: “The public are very concerned by the lack of competition in our energy markets and poll after poll shows they back renewable energy. So it's great to see the UK government recognise the vast potential for everyday communities to directly own renewable energy and by doing so, to break open our consolidated electricity sector.”

However, the trade association has identified a number of areas within the strategy that it is concerned with. Chief amongst its concerns is the proposal to potentially fund community energy schemes from an ‘allowable solutions’ fund, a result of DCLG’s watering down of zero carbon homes by 2016. Greene explained: “The Strategy is a good start, but it would be perverse if community-solar were funded at the expense of incorporating solar thermal and solar PV in new homes and buildings where it is sensible and cost-effective to do so.

“Building out the huge carbon impact of our built environment is essential to tackle climate change. It is hard to believe that community activists, who are highly motivated by environmental concerns, would support this approach. We all want to see community renewables properly funded while they get off the ground in the UK, but it would surely make much more sense to raise funds from levies on polluting fossil fuel activities.”

In addition, the STA is calling for DECC to adopt a broader definition of community solar. The association argues that it should include all socially-orientated organisations such as social housing providers, schools and public service providers. As part of re-visiting the definition, the STA is also calling on DECC to abolish the reduced FiT rate for social housing providers who install numerous systems.

Philip Wolfe, chairman of Westmill Solar Co-operative, also welcomed the new strategy but warned that the success of community energy depended on the government’s follow-through. He said: “The strategy must lead to real action to overcome some of the barriers it identifies, such as the ability of community schemes to sell energy to their own members and into the broader marketplace. Government must also recognise the special potential of community energy, when it tackles obstacles common to all renewables such as planning, grid access and the need for new heat networks.”

“There is some disappointment that many of these key issues have not been addressed directly, but pushed into working groups and ‘dialogue’ with the sector. While it’s good to see that community energy will now have a seat at the table; many of these talking shops have been around for years, without any tangible action to improve the deployment of sustainable energy.”

29 Jan 2014 Solar Power Portal

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