Widescale social housing retrofit projects led by local authorities are not uncommon. Yet many energy refits still tend to focus on changes at the microscale – in single buildings. Does it have to be that way? Is decarbonisation an easier challenge to conquer collectively? Éva Goudouneix believes so. A CityChanger facilitating community energy projects in London, where the idea is really taking off, she told us how this transition is emerging and what benefits it offers.
Renewable sources play a major role in decarbonising the energy sector. Deep retrofits are accessible to the wealthier strata of society, but not so much for low-income households exacerbating the energy gap. Community energy offers an equitable alternative. It has the potential to involve the full spectrum of society whilst revamping power networks.
Éva Goudouneix is Community Development Manager with Repowering London. This social enterprise helps low-income and disadvantaged urban communities participate in the green energy transition by creating decentralised community energy hubs. We asked her what that means for the people who benefit from it.
What is Community Energy?
Rather than fat cat businesses generating all the electricity and distributing it through the national grid, community energy (CE) is generated by a localised collective, or co-op. Power-generating apparatus can be installed on homes as well as commercial and private properties. There is generally “a legal structure to collectively finance and establish renewable energy” at these sites, and participants purchase shares to cement their involvement in the project. This is how they’re financed.
The energy comes from low-carbon renewable sources, usually on-site solar or wind power. “Europe has become a worldwide pioneer in developing community energy projects”, notes the Climate Policy Info Hub. According to Friends of the Earth Europe, there are now more than “2,500 renewable energy cooperatives” in place in the EU, and the UK government claims a further 5,000 on home soil.
Spotlight on London
The UK’s capital is emerging as a global leader. Community Energy London is a useful resource for information on many of the CE organisations active across the city’s boroughs. Their map of projects “has been developed to highlight community energy projects in the capital to help people to get involved” and “connect groups and enhance knowledge sharing”.
There is some variation in how CE organisations work. Most provide advice and support. Repowering London – or simply Repowering – also, Éva told us, draws on expertise and innovation to explore new ways to generate and distribute energy. Another part of their remit is to help those struggling to pay the bills manage their energy use, which is why they provide dedicated individualised casework to help tenants left without power altogether. CREW in Wandsworth have their own approach: their drop-in Energy Cafés offer a bill-checking service and tips for lowering energy bills. Their Home Carbon Audit “provides an in-depth assessment of your home’s carbon footprint” so people can introduce energy efficiency practices.
How Does it Work?
When a community group – or co-op – is formed and they identify a suitable site for the transition, Éva kicks off a community share offer to prime the pumps.
More than half of investors are the affluent 50+ demographic who respond to crowdfunding campaigns because they “just want to do something good with their money”. Most recently, they raised the £100,000 needed in a mere 3 months!
“The investors become members. They decide how we run the co-op.”
The organisation and its band of professionals then help the co-op purchase and install PV units on a public building or site, “which can be a school or a community centre, a support centre, and mostly community buildings or estates”. Even city farms and gardens. The clean energy is sold directly to the site at a discount. The income reimburses investors and feeds “what we call a community fund”.
In fact, these groups aren’t co-ops at all, but a Community Benefit Society. Whereas the former solely benefits paid-up members, a CBS pumps ‘profit’ back into the community at large. Éva is clear: “These projects should not only give a return to people who have the means to invest in them, but also benefit everyone in the surroundings.”
Supporting food banks or community centres, for example. “Our first co-ops in Brixton during the lockdown, they used a bit of their community fund to support a soup kitchen or a project on an estate for young people to have lunch and play together.”
As such, there are tangible advantages far beyond climate stabilisation. So, there’s plenty of motivation for residents, businesses, public authorities, and community groups to get involved and Éva spends much of her time finding, inducting, and coordinating stakeholders. See our companion piece for details of just how she does it – and how you can, too!
The Great Leveller – Empowering with Repowering
An integral part of CE is making the energy sector fair and equitable.
“Who wants to live in a society where your neighbour has to choose between heating and eating? It’s just not a nice world to live in, especially when we have the resources to make sure that everyone is feeling warm and well at home.”
Our expert links struggling to pay energy bills – energy poverty – and “problems in other areas of life”: struggling to find a job, mental health issues, generally “going through a hard time”. Energy debt creates stress, which further entrenches mental health problems, observes Éva. Struggles to pay for electricity correlate with “struggling to pay for good food as well. So, all of these problems are related, they’re not in isolation”.
“The more you’re in energy debt, maybe the more you have mental health problems because it’s so stressful.”
We need to start seeing energy as a basic right, believes Éva, with access that equals entitlement to food. The transition to community energy is a giant step towards that.
Not everyone can invest. But that doesn’t mean anyone needs to be excluded from the project. Éva’s days are chock-full of conversations with and events dependent on people awash with goodwill. Their passion and investment of time are every bit as valuable as a financial injection:
“Volunteering is so powerful, it can be a really good experience if you put energy in it, it can be very useful for your future jobs.”
Éva’s army of volunteers is predominantly the energetic, sometimes cash-strapped 25-35 years old. “And it’s mostly people from the local area”, those who know and care about the places and people that will be involved in the project. They go out, speak to people at council meetings, distribute flyers, put up posters, attract press coverage, and promote projects on digital networks.
Whenever there’s a photo opportunity, a local politician to show around a site, a promotional event, or a crowdfunding campaign to be done, Éva encourages volunteers to take the helm. That’s “the fun, exciting bit”. It gets and keeps people involved. That’s what builds a community.
“I’m really trying at least as much as I can to make sure that people can gain the skills they need from being involved in the project,” Éva reflects, “especially for people who need some experience to get back to work or regain confidence in public speaking.”
They also get to know community energy inside out, which sets them in good stead. Blossoming careers with solar and wind hardware await these young people and career-changers. This was the focus of Repowering’s last paid youth training programme – practical experience in installation, understanding the technology, and education in co-operative work, marketing, and finance. But these programmes need funding, which is sporadic.
Éva laughs at the idea that big power companies could be worried by community co-ops: “I think we’re not at the stage where they feel threatened yet.” But there are some persistent barriers to be aware of. Naturally, the case of London reflects an international situation.
Setting up a community energy infrastructure is complex. “If you want to start a gardening project, it’s relatively easy. You can just have a few volunteers and most of the time they can manage it themselves. But an energy project, putting up solar panels on a roof, it’s complicated.”
Laypeople and community groups have the passion and skills needed to facilitate and coordinate projects. But they need support to navigate legal procedures, the paperwork, the power purchase agreement (PPAs), the technical assessments. And “then you’ve got to do financial modelling”, and source engineers to fit the tech. “Even if you have a lot of will, even if they are super motivated, it’s going to be hard to find a group of volunteers with enough expertise to do all of this”, Éva stresses. Dealing with these, as she puts it light-heartedly, “boring, complicated bits” is best left to the initiated. It’s where Repowering excels.
At this point, it’s worth noting that the people at Repowering are advocates for retrofitting and energy efficiency in the mission to decarbonise, too. Company co-founder and CEO Afsheen Kabir Rashid told us these “are on the top of the energy hierarchy”, and are “game-changers to reducing fuel poverty and meeting climate targets”. Solutions work best if not implemented in silos.
Licence to Bill
Policy is a pain. “In the UK at the moment, if a community energy co-op wants to supply electricity to my house or your house, you have to have a supplier’s licence.” That “costs millions” keeping widescale transition frustratingly out of reach. Éva advocates lobbying for a change; Community Energy England provides some useful tips for doing so.
There are some changes in the model, though. “In the past,” when her projects were erected on housing estates, “we would only power the committee room, the lift, the stairs, the lights. Now we’re trying to install on sites where there is more on-site usage” all year round, such as schools and sports centres. “That’s why we focus on these community buildings.”
There’s a shocking lack of support from central government. Éva laments the closure of the UK’s Feed-in Tariff, a “very useful subsidy” which paid citizens “for every kilowatt-hour you generate” from renewables and load into the grid. “That is the reason why there was a huge spike in community energy projects.” It ended in 2019. Now “it’s much more difficult to make solar projects viable”, Éva tells us, so “community energy groups are having to reinvent their financial models, and it’s difficult”.
The mayor aims to make London a zero-carbon city by 2030 and offers an annual London Community Energy Fund to realise this vision. Other national schemes too are available, but what Repowering shows us is that social benefits, rather than greening the national grid, is what will really get us decarbonising energy chains.
Hopes for the Future
Our CityChanger believes it a necessity for decision-makers “to put financial support back in place”. This is critical for making more community energy projects visible and “viable for community energy groups like us who want to have a community fund, who want to give a discount, who want to give a good return”. And that leads to decarbonisation.
“For that, you do need financial support,” says Éva, “even if the cost of the solar panels has gone down”, which “was the rationale behind stopping the Feed-in Tariff”. Her point is made crystal clear from the crash in small-scale solar projects that followed – by a massive 43%!
Éva’s main bugbear is the block on inter-residential or peer-to-peer energy trading. This continues to benefit the large-scale carbon-heavy energy producers. But she has high hopes for policy change.
There is at time of writing a bill being considered that “would enable community energy groups to sell their electricity”. Rather than paying millions to do so, buying “a supplier’s licence would be proportionate to your means as an organisation”.
In London, Éva tells us, even energy company EDF is supporting a Repowering London trial of resident energy trading. So, it’s possible even the big traditional players are cottoning on to the need for a transition. Or at least changing their ways to remain in the game; increased choice in energy will eventually turn it into a buyers’ market. And if London is anything to go by, those doing the buying will expect a lot more than just power for their neighbourhood.