Renewable energy could cut energy bills – but the government must help

The big six still present obstacles, but pioneering local projects in the south-west are showing what can be achieved independently

Stop investing in dirty fossil fuels and rapidly shift to renewable energy to prevent dangerous climate change – this was the message from Sunday's long-awaited UN report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Why, then, is the government still kowtowing to big energy companies determined to keep us hooked on dirty energy? Last week I travelled to the south-west of England to meet people taking matters into their own hands.

Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (Wren) in Cornwall and Plymouth Energy Community  in Devon are two exciting co-operatives rolling out clean energy in their local areas.

For Stephen Frankel, chair of Wren and professor of epidemiology, the big energy shakeup isn't happening fast enough. Energy policy is fundamentally confused, he says. Politicians talk of decarbonising and decentralising our energy system, but the six large utility firms still have a stranglehold over energy policy – and all the money. Three years ago he was sitting at a pub table saying something had to be done, to take people back to the future, and give them control over their energy again. So off he went and did it.

At their energy shop on the high street, Jerry Clark, technical director, explained to me how Wren works. We're a one-stop shop for energy, he said. You may not be motivated by climate change, but if you want to know how to save money on your energy bills, come on in and we'll tell you your options. Wren then acts as a broker – finding installers to fit free insulation, solar panels and so on – and the customer pays a small finder's fee.

And what a success it has been. Already Wren has over 1,000 members in Wadebridge and the surrounding area, and has procured more than 200 installations. There are solar panels on the laundrette and the wine shop now, and also on a local school that we visited – they're saving it at least £5,000 annually.

What's fascinating is that Wren even has its own currency, a beautifully decorated note given out like reward vouchers for a supermarket. It's accepted by independent shops in Wadebridge, keeping money in the town. The installers are local, and Wren also donates to the food bank and other nearby community projects. They say there's about £1m in the local economy that wouldn't be there otherwise – now that's something. 

It is a little strange to think, though, that Wren's success relies on its customers finding their energy options so difficult to decipher – from the green deal to the renewable heat incentive. It's great that they trust Wren to make sense of it all, but does the government really need to make things so complicated?

solar power panels St Breock primary school, Wadebridge, Cornwall
Solar power panels at St Breock primary school, Wadebridge, Cornwall. Left to right: Kevin Smith (Wren), Andy Atkins (Friends of the Earth) and Jerry Clark (Wren). Photograph: Friends of the Earth Photograph: Wren/Friends of the Earth

Wren is also working to provide local and cooperatively-owned energy at community scale, with the energy generated being used to power nearby homes at a reduced price. And it is pioneering aspects of a smart grid that can cope with fluctuations in generation from renewables. 

They just need to overcome grid connection issues, Clark explained. The National Grid can be very slow to connect individual renewable energy installations and can charge a high amount for it, making the real cost to investors and communities far greater than that of the actual installation. It would have cost Wren over £1m to install solar on one particular Wadebridge school – crazy, isn't it?

Wadebridge is working hard to become energy self-sufficient. By the end of this year around 89% of the energy used locally will be produced locally. But only about 3% of the energy being produced right now is through installations owned by local people. Wren hopes to bring more of the current and new generation into local ownership, with a goal of 30% by 2016. I looked down at it from the hillside: a fairly typical market town of fewer than 10,000 people, not renowned for its green credentials like neighbouring Totnes. If Wadebridge could go renewable, so could other towns like it – Wren estimates that a third of the country has the right size population, roof space, and sufficient surrounding land.

With everything I'd seen and heard, we headed to Devon. In Plymouth, I met Dave Garland, a director of Plymouth Energy Community, and Alistair Macpherson, low-carbon city team leader at Plymouth city council. Their aim is to get solar panels onto at least 20 schools and community buildings in Plymouth over the next six months. 

Plymouth city council has provided half the funding needed via a £500,000 low-cost loan – and the rest is being crowd-funded through a community share offer. In just over five weeks they have raised £484,000 – with around 58% of investors living in Plymouth. This is an amazing success. Partly it's down to its marketing budget; partly the council's endorsement. But what I really like is how accessible it is to ordinary people. The minimum share is just £50 – and with a rate of return of 6% per year, far higher than an ISA, why wouldn't you? 

Schools can make huge annual savings through solar panels, with half-price clean electricity that could well cover library costs; as a former teacher, Garland holds the issue close to his heart. I couldn't agree more: it's why Friends of the Earth is launching its own new campaign to help schools nationwide go solar.

But there are technical and legal challenges to getting many energy projects off the ground. As Macpherson said, success comes with having three or four key individuals with lots of expertise and spare time. But many groups aren't this lucky, and that's when you need a council to step in, as has been the case in Plymouth. 

Certainly I think Macpherson is correct to say that local authorities should encourage community energy projects by providing funding, or at least permission and expertise. They are good long-term investments on behalf of local people, and a practical way for councils to demonstrate their commitment and leadership towards reducing carbon emissions. But we need help from central government too, starting first and foremost with greater ambition for community energy. 

There's huge potential for community energy in the UK and it could play a major role in shifting us on to renewables. According to a report by the thinktank Respublica in September last year , community energy accounts for 46% of all energy produced from renewables in Germany, while in the UK this figure stands at just 0.3%. It's hard to see why the government is keeping it on the sidelines  – unless it's worried about the threat to it poses to the big six energy companies and the fossil-fuel status quo.

The government must help people to start community energy projects, by making it easier to afford upfront costs.

The funding announced in the community energy strategy - will only go so far. In Germany people can get low-interest community energy loans from their bank. I want to see these available on every UK high street. And community-owned installations should be given priority for grid connection, at a low, affordable cost.

The winners of the global race to decarbonise will be the countries that invest now in solar power. Solar is already cheaper than gas in many parts of the world; it should be a no-brainer for any government serious about reducing energy bills and increasing energy security in a way that doesn't add to carbon emissions – unlike fracking.

Community energy projects could go a long way towards providing solar in the UK, keeping down our energy bills, slashing carbon emissions, and boosting local economies. The government needs to act now to remove the barriers and empower ordinary people to launch a massive generation of new, clean energy projects.

Andy Atkins is executive director of Friends of the Earth.

Interested in finding out more about how you can live better? Take a look at this month's Live Better Challenge here.

The Live Better Challenge is funded by Unilever; its focus is sustainable living. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.


Andy Atkins

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