Punishing the success?

Renewable energy capacity in the UK has grown in the last few years. The statistics of this show its importance in the energy mix. For example, in the first quarter of 2015 the share of electricity generation reached by renewables was 22.3%. That’s almost a quarter for that annual quarter! Or put another way, renewable energy (RE) generated 21.2 billion kWh[i] – that is equivalent to providing electricity to 21.2 million average UK households for that quarter. That is 80% of all households in the UK[ii]. Impressive! Important? Indeed! Of course, to keep it in context, most of the electricity generated by renewables feeds the national grid and is therefore not only used for households. But, as an illustration, if it was: almost all UK households would be powered by RE in Q1 of 2015! But, oh, the current government seems to think RE is not worth subsidising, that there is enough RE now – that its better to woo the Chinese to invest in nuclear and to support fracking. Nuclear, with its dubious long-term business plan (how do you plan for waste disposal costs that stretch way into the future), and fracking with its dubious short-term business case (wells don’t last very long)….

That first quarter of this year the RE generation was an increase on the same period in 2014 and this was largely due to an increase in RE capacity. Which was an increase on the year before. Imagine if we could keep that up – we’d soar past a quarter of all electricity generated being very low or no carbon! We’d power the equivalent of more than all the houses in the UK. Surely, when a new industry has risen so spectacularly to the challenge, it should be promoted and lauded? Allowed to sprint ahead? Instead its legs are being cut off at the knees. That is what the radical and sudden slashing of feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) is doing. Did you know that 148,000kW of capacity was installed under the FiT in Q1 of 2015. That brought the total up to 3.6 million kW of RE installed, thanks to the support it was getting! You could switch on about 1.5 million electric kettles all at once with a capacity like that!

In fact all RE increased – onshore wind from 6.7TWh for Q1 in 2014 to 7TWh for Q1 in 2015, offshore wind increased by 22%, hydro by 9.5% and PV by 3.6%. In Scotland the stats are really impressive: in 2014 half of all the electricity used came from renewables! In the first quarter of 2015 wind power produced the equivalent of the needs of nearly 4 million Scottish homes for that quarter[iii]. In June wind supplied a third of all Scotland’s electricity needs. This was an increase of 120% over the year before[iv]. Then, as if that wasn’t amazing enough, in July wind broke its own record supplying 36% of all electricity needs (or 72% of all Scottish homes): a whopping 660 million kWh. On eight days of that windy month 100% of Scottish homes were supplied by wind power[v]! A significant player in the energy mix? Yes!

But. I wonder if we will be able to say the same in Q1 of 2016. With the proposed almost 90% cut in FiT for solar PV and the halting of onshore wind, it is likely that very little, if any, new capacity will be added in early 2016. It’s confusing, seeing that the stats are so impressive. You’d think it would be further supported, that the politicians would blow their trumpets. They’d pat each other on the back and continue with the program that has been so successful and produced so many jobs and powered a significant portion of Britain’s electricity needs – all with near zero carbon emissions. How isn’t that a success story?

In the meantime, globally RE electricity has just become the second largest source of electricity at 22% of the total[vi]. Over the last 25 years global solar PV has averaged increase of early 45% a year, while wind increased at just over 27%. Indeed, it is a success story!

Let’s be clear. RE subsidies do need to be slowly phased out. But this should be done at a rate to allow the industry to mature, to gain grid parity and in consultation with the industry. Let’s be even more clear – its not as if fossil technologies are NOT getting subsidies and support. They are! So then these should be phased out too – maybe more rapidly seeing they are larger and been applied for longer. The International Monetary Fund states that the UK fossil fuel sector is receiving subsidies of more than £26 billion this year – that is more than 7 times that of renewable energy[vii]. Renewable Energy World published that in the OECD states there are 800 ways taxpayer money supports fossil fuel industries and at about $167 billion – far exceeds the value of subsidies for renewables. An example is that the oil industry is able to write off most drilling costs in full and immediately, rather than at normal business depreciation costs[viii]. This is NOT a level playing field! And yet RE is considered “too expensive” compared to fossil fuels….?

As the Renewable Energy Association puts it, the “bonfire of renewable policies” continues. If I was an outside bystander I’d be interested to see how the UK government is going to respond to high-level criticism of their new lack of support for this important industry, for creating investor non-confidence, for costing jobs. But none of us are bystanders. We are all affected by the UK government’s lack of vision, as the rest of the world seems to be supporting renewable energy.

Alastair Gets

Director of Engineering


[i] Electricity consumption 94.9TWh in Q1 of 2015 [gov.uk]

[ii] The average unadjusted electricity consumption per household in 2014 was 4,001 kilowatt hours (kWh), [DECC, ECUK Tables 3.07] and there are about 26.5 million households in the UK

[iii] Calculated from figures from renews (online) article 25/6/15

[iv] Figures from renews (online) article 6/7/15

[v] Figures from renews (online) article 4/8/15

[vi] International Energy Agency as cited by Alex Kirby of Climate News Network, August 19, 2015

[vii] Calculated from renews (online) article 4/8/15

[viii] Article by Kraemer, S. Renewable Energy World, June 10, 2015

Totnes Community Wind Farm: no regrets

The founder members of the Totnes Renewable Energy Society were, and still are, an ambitious bunch of people.  The sheer scale of the challenges of dealing with climate change and fossil fuel depletion demand big solutions.  Nor can the laws of physics be denied, and the simple fact is that wind turbines offer the most abundant and cost effective source of renewable energy available to us.  

Finding suitable sites for wind turbines that meet planning and commercial criteria is a specialist job and a very great deal of professional expertise is needed to prepare a planning application.  And so, in 2008, soon after the formation of the Society in 2007, we contacted Dorset based wind developer, Infinergy, to ask if they would be interested to work with a local community owned renewable energy society to explore the possibility of wind power for Totnes and the surrounding parishes.

When Infinergy ran their wind prospecting software they found, as other wind developers have found before them; that the best local site for wind development, taking all planning criteria into account, is at Luscombe Cross.  There followed 18 months of careful and confidential negotiation with the Agent before all agreements were signed and the first TRESOC share issue was launched in 2010.  

Infinergy confirmed that, taking all planning criteria into consideration it was the best site for wind development. It has been a 6 year journey of discovery and steep learning curves for everyone involved.  From the first desktop studies to find the best site for a wind turbine, contacting the land agent, negotiating legal agreements and preparing the planning application.  We are rightly proud of the quality of the work that was done by TRESOC working in close partnership with a highly skilled and well-motivated team of wind development professionals.  Sir Jonathan Porritt, in his letter of support, describes the Totnes Community Wind Farm Planning Application as “one of the best designed and well supported applications we have seen”  Not good enough though for the local planning authority who turned it down on the grounds of the view.  We had steeled ourselves for rejection by the local authority but were not prepared Infinergy’s decision not to appeal.

The choice to develop a large scale wind energy as the first project amongst our portfolio was a conscious choice. It remains the most cost-effective way of generating renewable energy and we had identified the best suitable site in our locality with the help of the developer. This was an excellent investment opportunity for our members and would be a significant generator locally. 

The substantial public engagement that we provided raised the profile of the development locally. With the benefit of hindsight, this unintentionally hindered the project, as it enabled local opposition to organise and gain strength earlier than in a normal planning application. However we don’t believe that this should have been done in a different way. The whole point of community renewable energy is to engage the local population and increase awareness whilst providing social and financial benefits.

Totnes Community wind farm has given us a good degree of experience from which we have learnt from. We want the embryonic community energy industry to gain from our insights, so if you have any questions please get in touch.

Ian Bright
Managing Director

View the Totnes Community Wind Farm project on our website.

River/tidal energy: The Anchor Stone Project

The story of our Anchor Stone Channel research project demonstrates that making progress with Community Energy is as much about relationships as projects.

Back in March 2013, TRESOC was hopeful that the channel of water passing through the Anchor Stone Channel, near the National Trust’s Greenway property would be suitable for producing renewable energy at a small scale (kilowatts rather than megawatts).

It had been observed that the water is around 20 meters deep just there, much deeper than at other parts of the river, and the strength of the tidal flow had carved out the channel at this point.  The Anchor Stone is a pinch point, where large bodies of water from above Dittisham are forced through a narrow channel, by virtue of the topography… the perfect circumstances for a research project.

In the summer of 2013, TRESOC collaborated with Plymouth University’s School of Marine Science & Engineering to create a project for Masters student, Francesca Ford, to assess the potential for producing electricity there.  Using the Plymouth University boat, Falcon Spirit, which came around the coast from Plymouth, a sonar measuring device was positioned on the river bed, just south of the Anchor Stone.  Francesca analysed the data and wrote up the project as part of her Master’s degree.  The strength and volume of flows in and out each day were measured for one month, to cover a full lunar cycle.

As part of our community engagement efforts, we hosted a meeting in June 2013 in Dittisham where interested members of the community could attend to hear more about the project, and take a trip out on a boat to view the site.  About 40 people came along to discuss what this might mean for the community, with many people in favour, in principle, of the idea.  For a write up of this day with photos, by one of our supporters, visit The Occam’s Typewriter Irregulars blog:

The results of Francesca Ford’s research were shared at an event hosted by TRESOC, in the Civic Hall in Totnes on 4th December 2013.  Unfortunately, Francesca determined that the average speed of the current at this particular location is not of sufficient speed to power an existing renewable energy device.  Although the speed of the current is quite high at times, the average speed – including tides and periods of slack water – shows that there is insufficient volume of water and speed of flow to warrant the installation of a device.It is likely that at a future date, the technology develop such that the energy in low flow rates will be harnessed, opening up possibilities for Community Energy groups located along lots of rivers.  This might take up to seven years, but the industry is moving in this direction, making ever more sensitive devices.

Just as importantly, our relationship with Plymouth University led to the entire MRE Masters cohort being involved in collaborative research, culminating in a presentation given at the same event (poster below): Investment Opportunities in Marine Renewable Energy in Devon and Cornwall.  Their research highlights 4 possible areas that appear promising.

We look forward to hearing again from Plymouth University with more concrete proposals. Together we can make things happen.

Alix Riley, TRESOC

Advocating for Community Renewables, a key component in community-led economic regeneration

It’s almost 6 years since TRESOC was founded as an Industrial and Provident Society for the profitable generation of renewable energy, by and for the residents of Totnes and the surrounding parishes.  We’ve built up a great team of Directors, Admin Manager, Intern and volunteers, with the professional skills to develop a range of renewable energy projects in community ownership.  We’ve raised £175,000 of share capital from our 500 members for project development and investment and we’re all aware that we’re working with money entrusted to us by our friends & neighbours in the local community.

One of the major difficulties we’ve experienced, along with other community energy groups, is dealing with legislation tailored for the existing electricity generation and distribution network, owned and controlled by a small number of large corporations.  So alongside keeping our members, supporters and the wider public informed of what we’re doing, it’s also important to engage with Government as they seek views on how to encourage growth in the community renewables economy.

As Managing Director of TRESOC I’ve been called to represent TRESOC and the community renewables sector at a number of workshops and events over the past year and I’d like to share some of this with you.  If your boredom threshold is not too low, please read on!

The role and context for community renewables

Communities have an important role to play in increasing the supply of renewable electricity, heat and transport energy to meet 15% of UK energy demand by 2020.   It’s a huge increase over current levels of renewable energy supply and requires a very different pattern of energy generation from large centralised fossil fuel and nuclear plant. 

Realisation of this level of renewable energy production involves a variety of technologies with large numbers of small scale power generation plant, widely distributed in every city, town, village and parish.

Local community ownership, in whole or in partnership, is a major factor influencing acceptability of all forms of renewable energy.  It’s a very different experience to look at a wind turbine if it is putting money in your pocket, rather than simply adding to the profits of a large corporation.  All over the country, people of all ages and walks of life are putting in time, expertise and their money to form community energy organisations, taking responsibility for local renewable energy production. The sector has grown from 4.1 MW in 2003 to 58.9 MW capacity in 2013, a growth rate 3 times faster than total UK renewables capacity over the same period.

I’m glad to report that we are now beginning to see recognition and encouragement for this grass roots activity. The Coalition Agreement has always included a commitment to encourage community owned energy schemes, and Government is now actively seeking consultation with the community renewables sector as the Community Energy Strategy is prepared for publication later this year.

Lobbying activities

Before starting on this account, I would like to first reassure our members that TRESOC funds are not used for lobbying activities.    Co-operatives UK has paid TRESOC for my attendance at two of these events.  Sometimes my travel expenses are reimbursed by the meeting organisers and sometimes they’re not.

TRESOC, like most communities, has found that an industrial and provident society (IPS) offers the best legal structure to develop community owned renewables.  Co-operatives UK is the trade body for the IPS sector and I’ve been working closely with them in their lobbying efforts.

In November 2012, I was asked to give a presentation on TRESOC and the Totnes Community Wind Farm at the launch of the Co-operatives UK Report on Community Energy and the Energy Bill.  It was a positive event; most encouraging to hear first-hand accounts of community energy projects from the Brixton to the Scottish Highlands.  The report highlighted the work still to be done in shaping legislation in the Energy Bill to ensure ongoing growth in the community energy sector.

I’m glad to say that a key Co-operatives UK recommendation in the report was recognised in July when the Government tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill to double the size of community renewable energy projects able to access Feed-in Tariffs to 10MW.

This means projects between 5MW and 10MW, which captures most larger community owned schemes, will be able to fund their schemes through the simple method of a fixed Feed-in Tariff, rather than participating in the new ‘contracts for difference’ regime, a complex scheme designed for large commercial developers.

Later in November I was invited to represent the community renewables sector at a Public Policy Exchange Symposium Countdown to the 2020 Sustainability Target: Unlocking the Power of Renewable Energy in Every Local Area.  I gave a 20 minute presentation on TRESOC and then took part in a roundtable discussion with a variety of interests represented; including wind farm developers, consultants, community groups, local authorities and a union representative speaking on behalf of offshore wind farm workers.  DECC officials took part and took notes on engaging with communities and investors to raise awareness of the benefits of renewable energy – much more work to be done in this field!

Then back to London in April for a Dept. of Energy and Climate Change Workshop on Access to Market for Independent Generators, looking at the problems faced by independent renewable generators when securing finance and selling their power, and how the implementation of Government’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR) might address some of the issues we face.  Discussion focused on the impact that EMR – and the ‘Contract for Difference’ – might have on reducing the risks faced by developers, the size of the risks that remain and the impact of this on the ability to raise finance.

One of the key issues for the few community energy representatives present was the sheer complexity of the proposed Contract for Difference legislation and the huge gap between the resources of large developers and community groups to tackle it.  “Legislation Lite” was mentioned as a route to market for small scale community generators but no firm proposals have been put forward – yet!

More recently, I took part in the Guardian Roundtable Debate on the Potential of Community Energy to Power the UK.  The debate was chaired under Chatham House Rules whereby everybody can say what they like, no-one is wrong and the transcript of the debate reports only what was said, not who said it!  The transcript, with list of participants, was published in the Guardian on 13th September.  It was refreshing to take part in such an open forum and encouraging to see a special adviser to Energy Minister Greg Barker MP at the table, confirming Government interest in supporting growth in the community owned renewable energy economy.

On following day I was at an Ofgem Workshop on Community Energy, which took the form of presentations from Ofgem and grid operators on what has been done so far, and what is proposed, to allow small scale community energy practitioners access to the grid.  

The view from the floor, understandably, was that it would have been good to have had a representative of the community renewables sector speaking from the platform.  These events often seem to have more community renewables experts than practitioners, with the latter obviously being too busy struggling to get projects off the starting blocks! 

Nevertheless, it was a very good and welcome start to what will prove to be a long journey for Ofgem and the industry in developing legislation to allow easy access to the grid for community projects.  There was a presentation on “legislation lite” for community renewables but, again, no firm proposals as yet!

The most encouraging meeting so far came when I was privileged to attend the Launch Event of the ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”  introduced by Greg Barker MP in the Houses of Parliament on 10th September.

The Report recognises TRESOC activities in the Section on Central Barriers to Growth of Community Energy, as follows:

“A recent example in support of the effect of local authority attitudes and levels of awareness concerns the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) wind farm. The Totnes Community Wind Farm, a project that Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future described as ‘one of the most well-designed and well-supported we’ve ever seen,’ was denied planning permission early in 2013. The opinion of TRESOC was that ‘Local planning authorities don’t yet have the tools to balance parochial concerns against national strategic objectives for deployment of renewable energy.'”

This suggests that greater information and training for decision makers – both planners and councillors – would be beneficial.

Apart from recognising TRESOC’s efforts, the report gives a good overview of the community renewables sector and points to the potential for growth.  The report says that community renewables could grow from current levels of less than 1% of on shore renewables capacity now, to 10% by 2027 

“if certain barriers are dissolved and the appropriate policy framework put in place.”

Partnership working with developers, as enshrined in the Rules of TRESOC, is highlighted as a way forward.  The key role of local authorities in bringing all this to fruition is also recognised with a number of welcome recommendations for partnership working with community groups.  The report is well worth a read, and its recommendations will help shape the Community Energy Strategy, due later this year.

I’m detailed for one more train journey to London on 17th October to attend a Community Energy Planning and Regulation Summit with Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change.  The summit will look at ways to remove obstacles to community energy and I feel privileged to have been invited to attend.  DECC have done a great job over the years in developing a coherent renewable energy strategy to enable the UK to meet its international commitments to source 15% of our energy from renewables by 2020.

And finally, the community renewables sector gets to have its say at the first UK Community Energy Conference  I’m looking forward to this one very much.  It is a struggle for every community renewables group to tackle the hurdles of legislation, planning, law, finance, and engineering, without the resources of major developers.  DEFRA estimates that only one in three community energy projects makes it to completion, so it’s always inspiring to hear first-hand accounts of success against the odds.  And to share experiences, renew old friendships and make new ones in the rapidly growing community renewables sector.

Conclusions and next steps

The main driver for all of this lobbying activity is the realisation that, if the potential of community renewables is to be fully realised, it’s vital that the sector has a voice in Government circles as the fine tuning of legislation in the Energy Bill takes place.  It’s a commonly held view that community renewables are happening despite, rather than because of Government.  Nevertheless, Government is listening and we need to make ourselves heard, now and into the future.  Co-operatives UK is taking a lead role as the trade body for co-operatives and industrial and provident societies delivering community renewable energy.  Their resources are tiny in comparison to the lobbying power of the big six power generators and Government should make allowance for this in their decision making processes if they are serious about continuing growth in the community renewables sector.

The elephant in the room here is the impact of Local Government on the cost, risk and timetable for delivery of community owned renewable energy projects. The Community Renewables Economy Report recognises this and proposes a number of measures for local authorities to engage with the sector, including “pathfinder” local authorities to develop models of co-operation with community groups.  This proposal is heartily welcomed by TRESOC and we believe this would be a great example of the Prime Minister’s “Big Society” concept in action.   

There are considerable opportunities for community organisations to facilitate local community investment in renewable energy projects, generating income on Council owned assets.  There is much work to be done here but the prize is worth the effort. And it has to be recognised that while DECC is doing a great job in promoting community renewables, the Department for Communities and Local Government needs to do more than pay lip service to the UK renewable energy agenda.

While all this is interesting (to me at least!) and necessary, it is challenging for us to justify spending time on lobbying, with a diverse portfolio of renewable energy projects in development.  TRESOC’s success depends on bringing these projects to fruition, which is where the efforts of the TRESOC team are now keenly focussed. We will have more news of projects for you in the very near future.

And finally, on behalf of the whole TRESOC team, I would like to say a big thank you to our members and supporters for all your recent messages of support and encouragement.  It makes it worthwhile to keep pushing the ball uphill!

Ian Bright, Managing Director


The Energy Bill and its Impact on Community Energy  

Guardian Roundtable Debate on Community Energy

ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”