The South East has been one of the cradles of community energy in the UK. Over a hundred locally-owned clean energy schemes are now up and running.  As the “Build Back Better” movement gathers pace is this the moment for community energy to really come of age?  For June’s joint action, we’re urging SECA members and local councils to look afresh at the potential for community energy and the many benefits it can bring.
In this blog, Liz Sleeper and Ollie Pendered, from Community Energy South, set out the case.

2020 Community Energy Pathway – #HarnessOurPower

by Liz Sleeper and Ollie Pendered

With the outpouring of volunteerism that has occurred since the pandemic – and the uptake in cycling, the improvements in air quality and water quality, is now the time to think about how we “Build Back Better” after Covid 19 and #HarnessOurPower?

This pandemic has given us a window of opportunity to envision a more sustainable and community-friendly future. To slow down and really focus on what matters and consciously be far more aware of our surroundings.

We have heard so many stories of people re-valuing their communities and neighbours in ways they had forgotten.  There has been such a run on bicycles that commuters wishing to purchase a bike for getting to work have to wait until mid-July.  The time is ideal to build on this re-energised commitment to our local communities and sustainability.

Which is where community energy fits in!

Since the arrival of solar in the UK, enthusiasts recognised the decentralised energy market as an opportunity to democratise solar.  Some were keen to see solar contributing to an “energy-owning” democracy, where individuals could own the means of their own energy generation. 

Of course not all renewable generation has been so available to individuals or home-owners, which is where community owned renewables kick in.  For a long time the big energy companies resisted setting up renewable energy generating projects.  But renewables enthusiasts recognised an opportunity to come together and create pioneering projects that others could repeat.  Crowd-funding, or community share offers, enabled organisations such as Westmill Co-op near Oxford or Ovesco in Lewes to create non-domestic solar projects that contributed renewable electricity to the National Grid. Investors could enjoy the benefits of investing locally in their local economy and promote a sustainable future.

Other groups followed suit and have created community-owned hydro projects, wind projects, and heat projects;  they are even coming together to create community-owned energy storage and electric bus projects.

Community Energy South was formed in 2013 out of the work done by Ovesco, as a vehicle to share best practice and increase the creation of community owned renewable energy projects in the South of England. Ovesco was our first Community Energy Company in the South East there are now over 38 Community Energy Companies.  Just around the Brighton region alone Ovesco has been joined by Brighton Energy Coop, Brighton and Hove Energy Services Cooperative (BHESCO), Repower Balcombe, Sunny Solar Schools, Riding Sunbeams, Cuckmere Community Solar, Meadow Blue Community Energy and Ferry Farm Solar (click on these links to find out more about the individual groups).  Collectively in the last 10 years these groups have built, own and operate over 130 renewable community owned projects over which has created millions of pounds of local investment opportunities and kicked started other sustainable initiatives.

The latest Community Energy England ‘State of the Sector Report’ shows that in 2019 our sector has worked with over 300 Community Energy organisations supporting 264.9MW of Community owned electricity generation, 2.1MW of heat and 30 energy storage projects. The sector has also supported 234,000 members to engage with energy efficiency.

The UK sector has prevented 65,200 tonnes of CO2 being released and has generated £4.6m of local economic benefits.

Which segues nicely into local authorities.  In the South East, almost all the local authorities have now declared a climate emergency or passed a substantive climate motion. Covid 19 and its financial impact on the Gatwick Diamond corridor has demonstrated the foolhardiness of our decision makers to put all their economic growth focus into air transport and its supply chain.  Whilst the air industry collapsed during lockdown, local community energy projects continued to generate and sell renewable power and heat.  Strengthening and “greening” our utility infrastructure does not only make sustainability sense, it also makes economic sense.

Brighton Energy Coop was another of the pioneers in the South East

And local authorities are engaging with this sector.  Worthing and Adur have established a model for schools to engage with community owned renewables projects – thus saving local council tax payers money as well as carbon. Cambridge County Council are creating a renewable heat project in conjunction with their local community energy groups.  Low Carbon Oxford have created an exemplary series of projects across an Oxford housing estate, which would be wonderful if each UK city could replicate.

Community Energy is an awesome resource for creating self-determining and resilient communities, that generate investment from wealthier members in their local community and deliver fuel poverty solutions to lower income members.

It is also a way to share skill sets, both within community energy groups – (often consisting of retired professionals and those younger less established in their careers) and across the sector, which is open to sharing and replicating skills, experience and lessons learned. 

On June 18th, as part of Community Energy fortnight, Community Energy South hosted a free online ‘Masterclass’ seminar “Build Back Better”, which brought together community energy organisations, activists and local authorities to share their experience and create a forum to enable more community energy groups to get established work with their authorities and create new projects.

The seminar included latest facts and figures on community energy, and information about grant-giving bodies that support the creation of such projects.  It also showcased how local authorities have teamed up with community energy groups to promote community energy projects.

Community Energy South will share their experience of mentoring new Community Energy groups and introduce their Pathway to Community Energy joining up community energy groups across the South East.  Keep an eye out on the CES website for updates, and for news of future Masterclass Seminars.

Community Energy South is a member of the South East Climate Alliance.  For more information, visit their website:

Further Resources 

Community Energy England are the overall champions for the sector in England, and offer a steadily expanding range of information resources on their website.  Their latest ‘State of the Sector Report’ provides a snapshot of the sector based on their most recent annual survey of member groups.
Community Energy – Traversing Turbulent Times.  Community Energy England teamed up with Community Energy South to run an online conference with this title in April.  This brought together leading practitioners from all over the country.  The writeup of the conference provides a bang up-to-date synopsis of where we’re at, and the many innovative projects that are now in the pipeline in the post-Covid, and post-FIT era.  You can watch a video recording of the morning sessions, and dig down further and look at individual presentations.
A break out session in the afternoon asked what role community energy can play in addressing the climate emergency.  Here’s a video of Geoff Barnard’s introduction to that session.

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