For many of us, the start of 2020 heralded a challenge to move away from ‘business as usual’. 

Within a landscape of global volatility, we’re seeing growing international pressure to act on climate change as we hit a crucial ‘decade of delivery’ on sustainable development. In the UK, levels of public concern on the climate emergency are unprecedented, with 70% of consumers calling for net zero emissions by 2030.

For many companies, it may seem a daunting task to balance the need to manage trade and supply chain risks within an uncertain political and economic outlook, against the pressing need to abandon ‘business as usual’ in favour of transformation to cut their emissions quickly, and at scale.

But it need not be impossible, and they need not do it alone. Community energy is an untapped opportunity that allows businesses, organisations and other asset (land and building) owners to radically reduce their carbon footprint and cut energy costs, whilst also building brand loyalty and benefiting local communities at the same time.

M&S Energy Society: democratising energy whilst building the brand

Some forward-thinking businesses are leading the way in building fairer and more equitable access to clean energy in the communities they operate in – whilst reaping the benefits of competitive bills, and accelerated progress towards their climate targets.

One such example is Marks and Spencer (M&S), whose Plan A sustainability programme has, for over a decade, helped to set UK standards for responsible retail. In 2016, M&S joined forces with Energy4All to create M&S Energy Society, an initiative to engage the public in generating solar energy on M&S stores across the UK. 

The Society offered the general public a chance to invest in a fund, from which it installed – and continues to maintain – solar panels on eight M&S store roofs that create over 800KW in energy capacity. The retailer buys the electricity generated by the panels from the Society, which in turns pays into the fund a targeted 5% return on its members’ investment. Profits are used to fund carbon-saving community initiatives via a dedicated Community Benefit Fund.

As well as delivering cost and carbon savings to M&S, the project also engaged with retail consumers, a previously untapped audience for community energy. Through in-store, online and direct mailings to customers, the company used its strong consumer brand to raise awareness of community energy and encourage investment.

Over £1.15m in investment was generated, and to date the Society has over 300 members. Over the 20-year lifespan of the solar panels, more than £270,000 in community benefit funds are expected to be generated. Society members – the investors in the panels – have a direct say in how the money will be awarded, to initiatives ranging from insulation improvements for community buildings, to helping local residents cut their fuel consumption and save money.

A win-win situation for all

By creating a deep, long-term partnership between company and consumer, the business model that underpins M&S Energy Society creates far-reaching benefits for all parties involved. 

“There were many more positive economic, environmental and social benefits to M&S supporting community energy, as compared to a traditional investment model. The project was a great opportunity to engage our landlords and customers in renewable energy,” said Lydia Hopton, who managed the project for Marks & Spencer.

Without capital investment required, it enabled M&S to install solar arrays on eight stores, helping to reduce the company’s carbon footprint  over the next 20 years. It gave M&S an innovative way to engage its customer base by allowing direct participation in its sustainability plans, and also visibly showcased M&S’ commitment to community energy and climate action.

For communities, the project is targeted to generate a direct fiscal injection of £270,000 over the lifetime of the project, for local energy initiatives. It continues to raise awareness of climate change and engages a wide audience in shifting to a low-carbon, decentralised energy system.

Best of all, it created a replicable business model that other retailers can use to harness community resources and support in investing in renewables.

Supporting bold action on the ground

Whilst global leaders gather at Davos to grapple with how to create a future-proof world, it’s clear that we need new forms of leadership to tackle the complex sustainability challenges that lie ahead.

But the impetus cannot be only top-down. At the grassroots level, we need more creative thinking, more collaboration and more bold initiatives that can ladder up to significant impact. By working with their stakeholders, investors and communities, businesses and asset owners have a chance to tap into ground-level support, to cut carbon emissions at the pace and scale that’s needed. 

These ambitious partnerships are what PowerPaired aims to nurture. Through extensive on-the-ground research and stakeholder discussions, the team at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future found that community energy groups face immense difficulty in finding asset owners willing to host community energy projects. By setting up a free-to-use online site that links up local energy groups with asset owners who are willing to explore hosting community renewables, it aims to facilitate collaboration more quickly and reduce the time and cost it takes to get community energy projects off the ground.

The appetite to take action on carbon emissions is out there amongst your consumers and the communities in which you operate. PowerPaired is here to help you make contact with these groups and explore new ways of working together that will accelerate and scale up your impact. Register your assets now for free, or get in touch to find out how we can help you.