It was back in 1997 that the blades started spinning on the UK’s first co-operatively owned wind farm, Baywind, in the Cumbrian fells. Since then, others have followed, from commercial-scale turbines in community ownership like Westmill, to small-scale water power like Torrs Hydro and ‘renewables building societies’ like this one in Oxford. And we know that co-operative ownership can make commercial sense. In Denmark, communities have a stake in most wind energy developments.
But it’s far from easy to make an energy co-op happen, and they are still the exception, not the rule. The market for large-scale, commercial renewables is well established. At the other end of the scale, it is now relatively easy for individuals with a bit of money saved to invest in energy generation, thanks to the feed-in tariff. But the community level is still problematic. Communities face tricky legal and financial hurdles, as well as the challenges of working together as a group of people, often volunteers.
That’s why I’m really pleased to be working with Co-operatives UK, to look at what we can do to smooth the way for co-operative ownership of renewables in the UK. We’ll visit five energy co-ops to find out about what’s worked and what hasn’t, and we’ll talk to lots more. I’ve worked on community renewables before – through this work on green innovation, and when I judged Nesta’s Big Green Challenge – so it’s great to get back to it.
With the help of each community, we’ll put together a manifesto for co-operative energy, to take to government. We’re hoping that ministers will support our ideas – the Coalition Agreement explicitly said that the government would like to find ways to promote community ownership of renewables.
The work starts now, and we’ll be visiting projects over the summer. If you have thoughts – on good projects, on what the issues are – on a policy that would make life easier for energy co-ops – I’d love to hear them.