Green Alliance asked me to come up with a ‘big idea’ the other day, for their blog. No pressure. I thought long and hard. Here’s what I said:
My big idea is simple. Give people the chance to buy shares in renewable energy developments near them. Whether it’s a wind farm, an AD plant or hydro power, there should be an option for anyone living locally to invest in the scheme, and share in the profits.
It would be a small change, but a very significant one, with the benefits felt far and wide.
Let’s start at the sharp end: the money. Over the next ten years, according to Ofgem, we will have to find a staggering £200 billion to invest in energy. No-one is quite sure where this will come from. Meanwhile, savers are seeing their money eroded, as interest rates fail to keep pace with inflation, and trust in mainstream financial markets and products has reached a low ebb. So, on the one hand, we have projects requiring investment; on the other, we have investors needing projects. The challenge is how to link the two.
And it’s a sure vote-winner. Feed-in Tariffs proved how keen people are to own their own energy. Rather too keen, the government thought, when they cut back the tariff levels to try to stabilise demand. Energy4All, a social enterprise who help to establish community-owned wind farms, has never struggled to find investors willing to put money into its schemes. But they can’t find enough projects to invest in, as commercial developers are often unwilling to change their business model and allow others to buy in.
It’s popular even among those who wouldn’t be able to afford to invest lots of money. Cwm Arian, a community group in west Wales hoping to build their own wind farm, are working with the local credit union to allow people to invest small amounts of money, so that anyone can buy in. And research has shown that people are more motivated to save energy if they are involved in local schemes to generate heat and power – so there is a carbon saving ‘domino effect’ for community energy.
There is clear enthusiasm for community schemes, but commercial wind farms often struggle to get local support. Earlier this year, over a hundred Conservative MPs wrote to David Cameron opposing wind farms, and citing concerns from their constituents. Yet often, it isn’t the wind farm itself that people object to, but what they see of exploitation of their local area by commercial interests. In other countries like Denmark and Germany, where community ownership is the norm, there isn’t nearly as much hostility.
But if community energy is to become mainstream, we need to make sure that all developments are owned, at least in part, by local people. That means asking commercial developers to let people buy into their projects.
To start the ball rolling, DECC could convene the main renewables developers, and make it clear that they expect them to offer local communities an ownership stake in future developments. Government, developers and community representatives could then discuss how best to make this happen. To start with, there could be a voluntary agreement with developers, but with government making clear that, if developers don’t offer ownership options, legislation could be changed to force their hand.
A central hub – perhaps itself a social enterprise or co-operative – could offer the legal and financial guidance necessary to link commercial developers to community owners. Establishing a co-operative and raising share capital from the community is neither a new nor a difficult thing to do, so it would not add greatly to the administrative burden for developers. Local authorities could also play a role, as co-ordinators or even owning a stake themselves, as happens in other European countries.
With a little encouragement from government, we could inspire a true renewables revolution – power to the people, in every sense.