As part of community energy fortnight in June, we’re celebrating the amazing initiatives within our region and across the UK. We’re proud to be supporting the launch of the new Community Energy England State of the Sector 2021 which provides the most comprehensive intelligence and data on the community energy sector.
Community energy projects are about putting people at the heart of the energy system. They already generate more than 319 MW of low carbon electricity, enough to supply more than 100,000 UK homes with renewable energy, according to Community Energy England.
But its positive impacts extend well beyond a cleaner energy system – it delivers the social, environmental, and economic benefits vital to a fair and inclusive energy transition. Distribution network operators (DNOs) like Northern Powergrid are uniquely placed to support community energy.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the world as we know it, but as with any crisis, it has also highlighted our best examples of endurance, ingenuity, and togetherness. Just a few months ago, few would have expected that renewables could contribute to over 40% of our energy mix without significant disruption.
Now, as a result of changes to energy demand and our ability to flex our electricity network, renewables are reaching well beyond that and hitting new records. The UK grid achieved a carbon intensity below 39 gCO2/kWh over Easter Monday this year – the lowest on record, according to the National Grid.
These changes demonstrate that a renewables-led energy system is within reach and that communities can be the driving force that delivers it while protecting our prosperity and wellbeing – a unique opportunity to ‘Build Back Better’ during the recovery. Without the support for clean, local energy solutions, we risk going back to business as usual and ignoring the lessons from COVID-19 that could help accelerate the transition to net zero carbon emissions.
DNOs have an important responsibility to support community energy projects across the UK – something that’s keenly felt at Northern Powergrid as we have a growing number of community energy organisations within our region. In the past year alone, the number of groups we are aware of has increased from around 20 to over 50.
Community energy projects are often motivated by the enthusiasm and passion of local people who recognise the economic, social and environmental value that these projects can bring. It is rare that we see community energy projects developed by energy professionals or those familiar with the connections process. As local anchor organisations, DNOs are also perfectly placed to help enable community energy organisations to flourish.
In 2020, we published our Community Energy Engagement Strategy, detailing exactly how we plan to foster the growth of community energy in our region. A year on, we have completed 19 out of 26 actions and made significant progress on the other seven actions; on some of our commitments, we’ve delivered even more than initially planned. These include creating a new community energy stakeholder panel and community energy webpage, hosting Community Energy Forums and delivering more than 3,000 engagements with community energy stakeholder since early 2020. A detailed progress overview has been published on our website.
Our proactive engagement has found that most community energy organisations need advice and support. This might be information on where to find financial support, data, useful tools, guidance on complex issues such as connections, or even advice on how to build industry relationships. Ensuring they have a key point of contact to pose these questions to is perhaps the simplest but most effective way to meet this challenge. We are holding regular customer surgeries and have made our contact details publicly available to meet this need.
We were the first DNO to launch a fund to support community energy and, since 2015, financed projects which have reached over thousands of people. In 2018, we merged our fund with Northern Gas Networks to maximise the benefits available to the communities in our region. On 28 June, our Community Partnering Fund will once again open for applications and community groups will be encouraged to apply.
Feedback from meetings and events, like our Community Energy Forums, continues to inform and enhance further work we are doing in this area. Moreover, we remain committed to advocating for the groups in our region and amplifying their voices. The feedback we’ve received from local groups was shared in our written response and the subsequent oral evidence session, informing UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into community energy.
Our vision set out in our Distribution System Operator (DSO) plan, is for a smart, flexible, and clean energy system, where a mix of sustainable sources provides electricity. In this world, the system works to utilise every unit of low-carbon energy in the best way and enables communities and individuals to provide power back to the grid, or take it from locally generated, sustainable sources. We are determined to help make this a reality and recognise that we already play a central role in enabling a low-carbon energy system, connecting people to locally generated wind and solar power across our region.
Recognising the importance of data and digital tools to explore the future pathways, we also launched our Distribution Future Energy Scenarios (DFES) report last month. The report modelled five scenarios demonstrating how we envision energy use might change in our region up to 2050. You can also explore our visualisation tool to understand what the decarbonisation pathways for our region might look like and exposes the scale of change needed.
However, we can’t afford to become complacent. Only by working together with our communities can we deliver the best possible outcomes for all our customers. Communities are the key to unlocking a fair and inclusive transition to net zero emissions and recent events have taught us we are capable of mobilising in the face of great challenges. As a DNO, we must play our part in providing the tools and expertise to help them achieve our collective ambition.
As part of our draft business plan, from 2023 onwards we’re proposing to establish community energy advisors in each of our operating regions to deliver direct advice and support to community groups and local authorities, including supporting 44 local schemes from 2023-2028. We’d welcome feedback from our customers and other key stakeholders if they think this would be a positive step forward as we work toward creating our final business plan for submission to our regulator this December.
By Anda Baumerte, Sustainability Manager, Northern Powergrid