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New models of community energy

Credit: Bristol Energy Cooperative
North Yorkshire County Council’s recent decision to approve Third Energy Ltd’s application to begin exploratory fracking in Kirby Misperton (by a majority vote of seven councillors to four) was seen by some as riding roughshod over the democratic process – 36 individual representations were made in support of the application, while 4420 were made against.  

On the same day, closer to home, there was news that Bristol Energy Cooperative would soon become the largest generator of community energy in the UK with the development of a 4.2 MW solar farm in Lawrence Weston.

The two organisations could not be further apart. While Third Energy Ltd is a recently registered private equity company with all shares held in house and likely backed by a parent oil and gas company (Third Energy UK Gas Ltd), Bristol Energy Cooperative is a community owned cooperative that has financed solar developments through community share offers, funding from the local council and ethical banks. Although at this stage we don’t know how Third Energy would finance any fracking activities – there is no reason why it couldn’t make a community share offer – Bristol Energy Cooperative has demonstrated with its existing solar developments a way to generate new electricity generation that is participative and engaging rather than exclusionary and remote.

That is not to say that the cooperative model provides all the answers; questions over who has money and time to invest/participate remain. Given the explosion of energy cooperatives and community benefit societies over the last few years, such models are clearly striking a cord with communities around the UK. Nevertheless, as a result of recent cuts in subsidies, we are now entering a period of uncertainty. Many community energy groups are waiting for prices of technology to fall and/or major planning decisions to be made. However, it is unlikely that that is the last we see of community energy organisations, many are working hard to function in the new harsher environment; devising novel models to develop renewable energy in ways that give communities more say.

What these new models might look like is still very much up in the air. With the introduction of Bristol Energy Company and Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, it might be that we see more collaboration between community energy groups and local councils (or their energy companies) drawing on both their relative strengths to leverage the necessary finance and public support, or we might see larger community energy organisations refocus their efforts by offering direct energy connections (private wire developments) to high energy consumers. There may also be a trend towards scaling-up and turning themselves into energy supply companies or cooperative services providers, and then there are partnerships taking place with traditional energy supply companies.

Whichever models come to thrive in the coming years, there is a growing acceptance that communities should have more, not less, say over how energy is generated at the local level. And with the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans (through the Localism Act 2011) there is a potential regulatory channel that local communities can employ to continue to pursue transparent and open decision-making. If such devolution continues, it seems likely that we will see more active, not less active, communities in all things energy in the years to come.

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This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Jack Nicholls, a PhD student in Law and Sociology, Policy and International Studies (SPAIS), who researches renewable energy development at the local scale. He has no financial interests in either Bristol Energy Cooperative or Third Energy Ltd.  
Jack Nicholls
This blog has also been featured on the Big Green Week blog.   Big Green Week runs from 11 June in Bristol and there are lots of exciting events to attend.  Check out the official website

The Cabot Institute is hosting a special Big Green Week event on 15 June on Nicaragua's progress towards 90% renewable energy. Full details and tickets can be found online.

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