Community Energy conference in Manchester: Onshore wind competitive, but held back by regulatory resistance

What will incumbents do? According to Max Wakefield, the lead campaigner for British climate charity 10:10, “they’re there to protect their market share.” Wakefield, who has been running 10:10’ s Blown Away campaign – which seeks to overcome government hostility to onshore wind – said that incumbents can be expected to fight dirty, to buy up new technologies and companies, to appropriate the language of ‘community energy’ where they can and generally do all they can slow down the regulatory process.

He was speaking in Manchester on Saturday, as Community Energy held its latest large conference. Established in 2014, the Community Energy is a not-for-profit membership organisation which supports organisations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, engaging with policymakers and others. Around 150 people gathered to hear from practitioners, campaigners and academics. The event was sponsored by Cooperative Energy (part of the Coop Group) and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the meeting comes at a tricky time for the sector, which has stagnated of late, with ongoing hostility from central government to on-shore wind, despite widespread public support for the technology.

Chairing a panel discussion on the question of “what do we need next? Taking community energy from surviving to thriving”, Paul Monaghan of Coop Energy delivered both encouragement and a note of caution. Assessing the fragility of the May government’s numbers (the Conservatives hold power thanks to a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party), he pointed out that a small number of Conservative MPs rebelling could force the government to change policy. Citing a recent unexpected victory on tax havens, Monaghan said, given the fact that on-shore wind could now be competitive without subsidy, “this is a door and this is the time to push it.” However, he also cautioned that community groups who thought that all their economic difficulties would be solved upon getting grid access should think again – while “Big Six” energy companies had not just lost market share (from 995 to 80% over the last decade), the margins for generators were very small, and at least two (SSE and RWE) were looking to get out of generating altogether.

All was not however, gloom and doom. Thanks to persistent and effective lobbying by victories had been won at the European level on the question of rooftop solar (if not ambitious renewables targets).

The Manchester event also saw the launch of two new reports. The first was the “community and local energy strategy” of Electricity North West, setting out how they intend to go about “forging links with community and local energy groups”.

Based on extensive consultations with stakeholders, it lays out how ENW intends to offer community and local electricity projects access to the grid, financial support and an improved regulatory regime. ENW says that it intends to be “responsive to customers’ needs”, will “create new mechanisms for community and local energy groups to engage” and search for locations on their network “where community and local energy can be deployed for the benefit of the network.”

The second was Community Energy’s second “State of the Sector” report, looking at community energy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland, for political reasons, is quite a different beast) (see other coverage here). The report is grim without being glum. Its authors conclude (in words that could be written of parts of Australia) that “what is immediately clear is that the impacts of regulatory and subsidy changes during 2015 and onwards have had a negative impact on the community energy sector, in line with changes seen in the wider energy sector. Ever decreasing project margins, alongside wider barriers relating to site availability, planning and grid constraints, are resulting in an inability for many groups to get projects off the ground. Evidenced by the low numbers of new community energy organisations, projects, funding and finance in 2017, this report confirms the sectoral slowdown predicted in the first State of the sector report.”

The authors go on to admit that despite “continued motivation and passion within the sector” the slowdown “will continue into 2018.”

Conspicuously absent at the conference was any organised union presence. Despite rhetoric for a ‘million climate jobs’, and approving noises from Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn on climate and industrial policy, it is fair to say that – if this conference is any indicator – that the endlessly predicted and hoped for ‘red-green’ coalition is still a distant hope.

So, while the technologies are maturing, the level of debate – and the attitudes of politicians supporting the incumbency – remains anything but mature. And the carbon dioxide continues to accumulate…

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