The community energy sector has achieved a lot through a difficult summer. Six months into the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen that in spite of the struggle to grow and scale within a tough regulatory landscape, community energy groups have bucked the odds, not just to survive, but to play a leading role in helping local communities weather the storm of the pandemic.

During Community Energy Fortnight, we set out to discover how the rapidly evolving context was impacting community energy groups, and what barriers still lie in the way of getting new projects off the ground. We launched a survey asking groups whether they were still actively looking for new project sites, where they were looking – to help us better connect them with relevant asset owners – and what challenges they have been facing in their assets search,  and in pushing new projects through to completion.

Asset owner disputes and lack of regulatory support are key difficulties faced

An overwhelming majority (86%) of groups said that they had previously experienced challenges dealing with asset owners – owners of roofs, buildings and land on which viable clean energy projects could be sited. Key issues they faced included:

  • The difficulty of accessing the right decision makers amongst asset-owning organisations
  • Unrealistic expectations of financial returns without considering the broader, long-term benefits that community energy projects provide
  • Trouble getting agreement for use of land or buildings, often through disputes between enthusiastic tenants and reluctant landlords
  • A general lack of understanding amongst asset owners of clean energy technologies, of viable project timelines, and of community energy in general

With the UK’s Feed-In Tariffs (FIT) Scheme ending, many community energy groups are also finding it difficult to make solar projects financially viable. Some have decided to focus instead on other types of projects like energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation. Others are having to move away from community centres and schools to larger sites for solar with high energy usage in order to create a robust business case with adequate returns on investment.

We asked these groups what they most need right now in terms of support and resources that could help them begin to overcome these barriers. First on the list was technical expertise (58%), followed by advice and support in sourcing funding (50%), and the availability of legal assistance or templates that they could use in the project implementation phase (41%).

Other types of support they would find useful included:

  • More initiatives to educate asset owners on the benefits of community energy and the implementation process
  • The ability to forge partnerships with influencer organisations for key asset owner groups such as farmers’ unions, landlords’ associations and local authority associations
  • Stronger mutual support and information sharing with other community energy groups.

Helping the sector move forward in a difficult year

Insights from the survey – and our ongoing stakeholder engagement – echo Community Energy England’s 2020 State of the Sector report in highlighting the urgent need for clearer guidance and a regulatory framework that nurtures, rather than hinders, the community energy sector.

It is imperative that solutions and decisions for our economy, environment and society focus on local communities and the people within them. Community energy could play a major role in tackling climate, social and environmental challenges at grassroots level, and needs to be empowered to do so.

In the meantime, platforms like PowerPaired – supported by People’s Postcode Lottery and Friends Provident Foundation – with the ability to bring together community groups and bridge gaps with asset owners, are more important than ever to help keep community energy organisations going.

Despite this year’s major challenges, demand and determination for community energy is still strong, and the search is still on for potential sites. If you own land and buildings – you might be a manufacturer, local authority, farmer or landlord – please come forward by registering for free on PowerPaired. We can then begin a conversation with you and local groups to help bring some of these sites forward into successful clean energy projects.

Do our survey insights resonate with you? What other challenges or opportunities do you see facing the sector in the coming year? Whether you’re a community energy group or asset owner, we’d like to hear from you. Contact us at [email protected]