Renewable energy: now in my backyard

More widespread participation in the creation of renewable energy will push the UK closer to its low-carbon economy goal, says Valerie Mocker

 

The energy you use to boil a kettle in the morning or turn on the hallway light at night might now come from a renewable source. However, the bill continues to arrive from your commercial energy provider.

But what if you produced your own energy?

2014 not only marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, but we will also see an impressive diversification of agents, forms of funding and new partnerships to realise the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Renewable energy – which is supposed to produce 15% of the UK’s energy demand by 2020 – plays an important part in this, as you can try out for yourself with DECC’s intriguing energy carbon pathway calculator.

Who will own and build these renewables in the future? It could be you and me. 

Photovolatic (PV) solar panels have already started to make their way onto private roofs. Local organisations, such as schools, will also see increasing opportunities for installing their own. Solar Schools is one project which helps UK schools to finance their own energy sources. Challenge prizes, such as Nesta’s Big Green Challenge, are another opportunity which communities in Lytham have harnessed to make St. Bede’s High School become one of the UK’s first carbon neutral schools with the help of renewables. The advantages of such projects are educational as well as financial. Behavioural change researchshows that personal experience and engagement – for example through daily confrontation with energy issues in schools - can have positive effects on sustainable energy consumption outside the classroom.

But who will pay for setting up these small-scale renewables?

Alongside public sector funding ranging from challenge prizes to the recently established Rural Community Energy Fund, another trend is emerging: crowdfunding. We previously predicted the rising importance of crowdfunding  and this trend holds true for the energy sector. The Forest of Dean will see its first community scale wind turbine where locals could invest as little as £5. Once in operation, £12-18,000 per year are planned to be donated to local community projects and infrastructure to increase the benefits of energy projects.

This does not mean that utility companies will disappear from the market, but new partnerships will emerge. Opposition to energy plants in the past has led utility companies to rethink their local engagement for current and future projects. Today we see public consultations throughout construction processes or the creation of community funds - such as E.ON’s Energy Action Fund - which supports locally initiated projects tackling energy efficiency or energy education. Another idea in the pipeline is community shareholdership in power plants.

The challenges

These prospects are not always as bright as they might seem. Three challenges need to be overcome: firstly, how to assure that poorer and vulnerable groups are not left out in this development, given that fuel poverty is already a problem affecting two million people in the UK? Secondly, within community funds, how do we best define what (and who) the community is? Thirdly, of the various renewable technologies ranging from hydro to biomass, not all are suitable for small-scale ownership - not just because of the UK’s weather. Certain technologies, such as PV panels, are much easier to install than wind turbines that require specialist knowledge and significant logistic and financial resources.

Nevertheless, small-scale renewable projects bear huge potential for local empowerment, sustainable behaviour change and a more efficient process for constructing renewable energy sources on a large scale.

If you are excited about renewable energy, then it’s time to go ahead. 2014 is your year!

This article was originally published by NESTA