Solar SOAS at the Co-op Community Energy Conference

This blog compiles the personal experiences of a member of our core group. This event was attended by Isobel Annan, who here writes her thoughts on the community energy network.


On behalf of Solar SOAS, I attended our first national gathering of community energy groups in Oxford, which marked the opening of the Community Energy Fortnight on 5th September. Met by what is truly a community more than a sector, the day injected the project with a burst of inspiration and information that has turbo-boosted our progress.

“Community energy projects have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, moving it away from large, fossil fuel generators toward locally owned, cleaner electricity generation sites,” said Ramsay Dunning of host Co-operative Energy, who are funding the third Community Energy Fortnight.

This fortnight has seen an amazing range of events around the UK, educating and engaging the public in the future of energy. Twitter has been buzzing with success stories, campaigns and intense debate of the latest policy development from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), a development described as both ‘bonkers’ and ‘devastating’. Even Boris Johnson has expressed he is “very concerned”.

A quick mass BOO for the government, and the conference moved swiftly on from bemoaning this policy punch in the stomach to the UK renewable sector. That is, the government’s proposed 87% cuts to Feed-in Tariff subsidies meant to level the playing field for nascent renewable energy like rooftop solar. Outrageous, but Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ comes to mind, as co-hosts Emma Bridge of Community Energy England and Ramsay Dunning of Co-operative Energy stand tall and open a positive day of organisation and mobilisation. “There’s no way you could say that what’s going on in policy isn’t potentially very damaging for community energy… Sudden changes in policy undermine the confidence of investors who have started to show an interest in the sector” explains Graham Ayling, head of the Energy Saving Trust Foundation. But, he adds, “We firmly believe that whatever happens to policy, community energy will continue as the sector is driven by incredibly creative people who are passionate about what they do.”

Bridge shares this optimism, telling UKCEC “Our sector is robust enough to survive these challenges, not least because of the determination and dedication of the groups who develop community energy schemes. We will bounce back.” Solar SOAS breathes a sigh of relief.

In between workshops on finance and shared ownership, heated panel discussions, and expert presentations covering themes such as ‘How community energy in the UK can reach scale’, we dashed about networking with other pioneers in the energy transformation. This packed Oxford lecture theatre stands testament to the strength of this growing grassroots movement, and it felt great to unite with the community energy movement as a whole.

With upwards of 5,000 community energy projects in the UK and counting, the social capital is certainly there, but in today’s uncertain political and financial climate, collaboration will be key. So how can such varied and dispersed hydro, wind, solar groups effectively collaborate? The conference welcomed the launch of the Low Carbon Hub, ‘enabling community action through strong partnerships’, introduced by CEO Barbara Hammond. The Low Carbon Hub provides a unifying platform for the generosity of groups to share understandable information, explore new business models together and support each other through the winding processes of community energy generation. Count us in!

The day was immortalised in Solar SOAS’ notebook, now full of tips on technical details, learnings from other countries in Europe, UK case studies, and motivational quotes. “This is the most important thing you’ll do in your life, please carry on,” said Hammond, who has won an MBE for her contribution to community energy. Her MBE has been fittingly redefined as “Mistress of Benevolent Energy”.

What were the biggest takeaways for the community energy movement? In the short-term, we need to:

·      Raise a strong unified collective voice to defend FiTs

-       please sign this government petition, we need 100,000 signatures

-       and watch out for new developments in 10:10’s Keep FiTs campaign

·      Help the FCA understand community energy better

·      Engage positively in shared ownership for smart partnerships

But looking ahead? The audience and speakers hoped for a plan for a post-subsidy renewable energy sector, as renewables approach grid parity and stand on their own two feet.

I shared the train home to London with climate-positive 10:10’s insightful speaker Leo Murray, and we head into the new university term with a supportive network and a strong sense of purpose.  

Stay tuned for updates on our DIY solar charger workshop from Demand Energy Equality, after which we will roll out our own hands-on solar workshop and welcome for students at SOAS Campaigns Day on 25th September.

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