A report by IPPR assessing the impact of a ‘Green Streets’ community energy scheme underlines why community approaches to energy efficiency and sustainable energy generation can have a big effect on reducing carbon emissions, saving money and making people more secure and comfortable. Between January 2010 and March 2011, 14 groups had a share in £2m to undertake projects to save and generate energy and engage their communities. There was also a £100,000 prize available for the project which best met the objectives. The project is sponsored and supported by British Gas.
Reading the report provides a great insight into the different values, approaches, aims that underpin different local clean energy projects. Some applied for the project because they were mainly interested in financial and social benefit to the community – others came from a more climate change-orientated perspective. Others combined both. Some ‘campaigned’ more and some were more involved in improving existing facilities. Projects included a lido which was altered to improve the energy performance and encourage more customers, a village which wanted to improve the energy efficiency of vulnerable people’s homes and a community who wanted to become carbon-neutral within five years!
There was a lot of insulating and behaviour change, and technologies installed ranged from the expected (solar PV, especially through ‘rent-a-roof’ schemes) to the more unusual (biomass stoves). There were also some interesting findings on the state of people’s homes and appliances. 21% of boilers were found to be still working (inefficiently) beyond their expected lifetime. This means we need to replace over 4m boilers in the UK, as soon as possible, to have a significant impact on domestic emissions. Significant carbon and financial savings were made in many of the projects and more excitingly, several showed how more activities and users could be fostered whilst using less carbon. This ‘decoupling’ is really what we need if human activity continues to increase as fossil fuel use dwindles.
Although most of these were very small projects in terms of the quantity and capacity of technology installed, and the number of direct participants, the wider impact has been significant. Indeed the report suggests that the ‘multiplier effect’ on those who are not directly involved in projects can be bigger than often assumed: in areas close to where projects were running, an average of 40% of people said they had heard of the project, and nearly half of these said it had influenced them to do more on energy efficiency and generation. The report found an ‘impressive and catalytic effect’ on the wider community in many cases:
‘If even a fraction of those in surrounding households surveyed follow through on their statements, savings could grow significantly. It is unlikely this kind of multiplier effect could have been achieved in any way other than through concerted action on the part of credible local community groups.’
Of course, engaging people around you begins with telling them about what you’re doing: although not part of this project, the residents of Tidy Street in Brighton have found an in-your-face approach!
For all its success, the project is described in the report as ‘hugely ambitious and fiendishly complex’. Some of the barriers many of the projects encountered:
- Capabilities, skills and knowledge
All leaders of projects were stretched by their work and some had more setbacks than others. This particular project had support and advice from British Gas staff on technologies and organisation – without this they may not have had the impact they did.
This underlines how people badly need good, impartial advice on, for example, the merits of solar PV versus a wind turbine and insulation. IPPR recommends better advice for communities, both online and offline, and a mainstreamed understanding of the multiple benefits of community energy projects.
- Availability of finance
There is a real lack of opportunity to borrow or raise money for these types of projects. A community solar installation can cost around £30,000 – not an amount most communities have just lying around. Community projects of this nature are seen by investors as ‘high risk’. Changes to the Feed-in Tariff for solar PV may make paying back loans on PV harder, not easier. See next point.
IPPR recommends Government loans be made available to communities, possibly through the Green Investment Bank, and that Government should also consider ‘community benefit’ tests for RHI and FIT payments.
- Solid walls and heat pumps
Solid wall insulation is a big challenge. It’s expensive and unsightly, making it doubly uninspiring for homeowners/landlords and meaning it doesn’t pass the ‘Golden Rule’ of the Green Deal for payback on energy savings (as the Government has now acknowledged). But around 30% of UK homes have solid walls. This has a knock-on effect for the efficacy of heat pumps, which are only effective in buildings with high thermal efficiency (i.e. not solid-walled ones). This could have an impact on uptake of heat pumps under the new Renewable Heat Incentive. The Green Streets project recorded a very low uptake on solid wall insulation by those who had it recommended to them. IPPR recommends more R&D on improving solid wall insulation and a process which better enables bulk insulating of large numbers of solid-wall properties (e.g. on a street-by-street basis). This is another aspect of current issues with the Green Deal – too much focus on individual household uptake, not enough on community and local authorities.
- Planning issues
Participants’ experiences with planning varied widely and erratically – two encountered strong resistance to renewables installation within their community. This area can be very time-consuming, especially for people who aren’t experienced in planning law and process. IPPR notes that current proposed changes to the planning process could simplify the often arduous procedure of doing retrofits or energy installations. IPPR recommends a Localism Bill which allows communities desires to be represented and carried out, a relaxation of some planning regulations over certain technologies and buildings, and better education for planning officers on local clean energy approaches.
We’re now on the hunt for some amazing UK local sustainable energy champions for 2012. If your organisation or project, or one you know, is showing demonstrable carbon savings, replicability and cunning community engagement, and showing some good ways of dealing with some of the challenges above, get in touch. Schools are included too! Entry forms are available here and we need to hear from them by 25th October.