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Has the time come for community energy in Norfolk?

Recently, when discussing my experience of chairing Norwich Community Solar with a friend and member of our cooperative, he commented that perhaps there were “not enough mountains in East Anglia”. I shall return to what he meant by that later in this article, after telling you some more about community energy and the experience gained within our local solar energy community benefit society.

Up and down the country, community groups have successfully organised as social enterprises to own and deliver green energy to our electricity system as well as, more recently, tackling the issues of low carbon mobility and heat. Norwich Community Solar (NCS) was started as a Community Benefit Society by a small group of environmentally concerned residents in late 2017 and as members of Community Energy England (CEE), which represents similarly minded organisations, we are now part of a community of 228 in England and Wales [1].

Some of the earlier members of CEE have grown in terms of installing mega Watts (MW) of generating capacity (not only from solar but also wind and hydro schemes) and others have spawned new energy social enterprises from their community benefit funds. NCS aspire to follow suit, but the removal of the feed in tariff subsidy scheme has had a dramatic impact on the support for new projects. To highlight this, the number of new CEE members founded in 2017 was one, and that was NCS!

With the additional loss of the Urban Community Energy Fund (UCEF) and removal of the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) eligibility for investments in community energy, NCS have entered the energy market at a particularly challenging time. One can see the perversity of this situation in terms of the leading position in the EU, the UK holds in subsidising fossil fuels[2] despite its decarbonisation rhetoric and signing of the Paris climate change agreement to limit global warming to 1.5ºC!

The need for community energy
Notwithstanding the economic dimension as a cornerstone of any successful enterprise, we are also entering an era in which NCS believe social enterprise especially, can deliver in the other ways that are becoming recognised as more important than economic growth alone. Recently we have witnessed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal [3] initiative, the ‘world-first’ by the New Zealand government to prioritise wellbeing in its lates t budget [4] and in the UK, a recommendation [5] by an all-party parliamentary group that in the forthcoming 3-year spending review, the government should set wellbeing as the primary aim of government spending. NCS, both owned by its members and working to return benefits to the community it serves, is a means by which community wellbeing can be created and enhanced. Empowering communities in such a way will also increase their resilience in a future that is likely to be more uncertain.

What we offer
Our mission is twofold:
First, to work with local people (including land owners, other social enterprises, businesses and local government organisations) to increase the presence of community owned renewables in Norfolk and Norwich. There is a growing call for action on global warming, and interest in our organisation is expanding as we passed our 55th member-shareholder earlier this year.

Second, we are strengthening our connections with similarly aligned environmentally-oriented organisations to increase our capacity as a cooperative, but also to improve the social resilience (sometimes called social capital), and emotional and mental wellbeing of our communities. For those that see the need to change the way things are, by backing NCS we offer an avenue to exercise that need, by regaining a measure of control through cooperative ownership and collectively facing environmental catastrophe and the lack of equity in it.

NCS have a business model that offers better financial returns from investing in our projects than the financial return from putting savings in a bank. Importantly, though, at the same time we are laying a more sustainable and resilient foundation for future generations. The beauty of the model is that commitment from any individual could be as little as a £50 shareholding in one of our projects, while still providing a positive emotional return on investment. Additionally, if possible, we will offer our energy buyer, say the building owner, a discount on the energy we generate on site. In this way, we are returning the benefits to everyone involved, creating resilience and wellbeing.

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Why NCS is needed in East Anglia
East Anglia has a historical involvement in the energy industry stemming from offshore oil and gas, and recently from offshore wind. Despite the burgeoning offshore energy industry, there are still large numbers of Norfolk residents in energy poverty and unconnected to the gas grid. The only benefits to local communities are a few jobs and some collateral funding from the big energy companies. Similarly, Norfolk alone has around 42 large ground mounted solar arrays, mostly in the ownership of multinational companies and investment funds.

With this backdrop, and in an area so rich in solar and wind renewable energy resources, it could be assumed there would be a larger than average appetite for community owned renewable energy. However, not only are we home to the third lowest in the number of community energy groups compared to the rest of the country but we are also grossly underperforming in regard to community owned generation capacity as well!

Not enough mountains?
These gaps could be interpreted as an opportune moment to start a community energy project. In my two years of chairing NCS, investing hundreds of hours of free time from the NCS team, we have made proposals for community owned energy projects to over twenty Norwich based organisations.

The model in essence for each was:

  • No financial risk to the client (purchase of the equipment will be in community ownership, through crowdsourcing)
  • Offer to supply 100% green electricity at a cheaper price than the consumer will otherwise pay
  • Guaranteed professional installation and maintenance of the community-owned solar generator by NCS
  • A 25 year commitment
  • After paying our operating expenses and community shareholders interest on their investment, all surplus would to be re-invested locally in further environmentally positive schemes

Despite the obvious social, financial and environmental benefits of such a scheme we have yet to complete a single installation.

One cause could be institutional inertia. Many organisations we have encountered are structured in such a way that their decision-making processes either don’t cater for our value proposition, or prevent rapid enough decision making to engage with us. In simple terms, this results in extremely slow progress at all stages of a project proposal, with the project sometimes being lost completely at higher levels of the organisation, despite initially positive responses. Risk aversion is a likely factor in this inertia. What all this points to in our opinion, is a lack of vision for a world where wellbeing comes first, with the urgency that is now necessary. There is a need to raise our game and perhaps look to new peaks as future benchmarks – we need more mountains in East Anglia!

What we want
Having laid out the challenges, I want to conclude with what NCS want to do about it and how we can work together. We recognise that renewable energy technologies are getting cheaper and more accessible to grid edge actors like ourselves. Our vision includes innovations in PV modules, mobile and static energy storage and the use of more brownfield space to generate from – such as in solar car ports over car parks, or ground arrays mounted on capped landfill sites. But we can’t do this alone in a purely commercial market place. We need to work with organisations who are willing and ready to act on social responsibility, global warming and wellbeing in general. Individuals who also have their vision set on higher peaks and want to join us in innovating a new environmentally and socially resilient way in Norfolk. We believe this is already happening in other parts of the country as part of the trend to decarbonise, distribute, decentralise, democratise and disintermediate rolls out. Why not then in our own promising context, which is rich in natural energy resources and enterprising, green-minded communities? We would love to hear from you, if you also share this vision.

[1] https://communityenergyengland.org/files/document/169/1529576087_CEEStateoftheSectorReport2018.pdf

[2] Energy Prices and Costs in Europe, 2019; Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, European Commission, Brussels.

[3] Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal, 2019; Ocasio-Cortez, House of Congress.

[4] Budget Policy Statement 2019; The Treasury, New Zealand.

[5] A Spending Review to Increase Wellbeing: an open letter to the Chancellor, 2019; All Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics.