When you bring together people, communities, like-minded NGOs and companies, really big changes can happen
About four years ago, we installed a wind turbine at the River Cottage cookery school and working farm in east Devon. It stands proud at the top of Higher Cart House Hill, looking down over our orchards, cows and sheep, turning gently or whizzing frantically, depending on the weather. While it can’t give us all the energy we need, it provides some power almost every day and can fulfil between 30% and 100% of our energy needs depending on how breezy it is. On blowy days, it’s very nice to know that our laptops and fridges are ticking along without needing to draw on some fossil fuel-fired power station.
The good feeling of creating your own energy is, I know, something that more people in the UK would like to experience. Up and down the country thousands of people are getting together to find ways of generating renewable energy. They are pooling resources, be it a field, a roof, a garden or even a stream, to share different ways of producing renewable energy for their community.
I’ve learned from other projects I’ve been involved with, like the Fish Fight campaign, and our Landshare website, that when you bring together people, communities, like-minded NGOs and companies, really big changes can happen. And frankly, changing the way we produce our power, so that it doesn’t deplete the Earth’s resources and mess up our climate, is change that’s as massive as it is urgent.
But we have to start somewhere. And that’s why I am very happy to be involved in a scheme called Energyshare. It was launched just over a year ago with the specific aim of helping local groups, charities, housing associations and the like to generate their own renewable energy, many on a significant scale.
To make it happen, we’ve taken a deep breath, and teamed up with British Gas – a scary prospect in some respects, as they are not well known for their environmental credentials or their commitment to renewables. But I think we are only going to solve problems of this magnitude if we are prepared to work with the big players in the energy sector. Through their Green Streets projects British Gas have shown they recognise that communities are a powerful force in helping people both save energy, and generate their own renewable energy. I’m arrogant and/or optimistic enough to believe that a project like Energyshare may help further change the culture and levels of commitment to clean, green energy – and not just of British Gas, but of the whole energy sector, and it’s consumers. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
Energyshare has already seen some inspiring successes. There’s Westmill windfarm – a community-owned windfarm providing 2,500 homes with electricity; or the University Hospital of South Manchester – officially Britain’s greenest hospital – which has cut its energy use by 26% and is now generating some of its own power. A village hall in Devon that generates its own electricity with a small wind turbine and solar panel, and sells surplus back to the grid, has dropped its running costs by 90% and created an income. Schools, sports clubs, pubs, hospices, scout huts, village halls, churches and residential streets, all are getting involved.
The success of many community energy projects is vested in the government’s feed-in tariff’ which pays green energy generators. Up until now it has been one of the very good things about small-scale renewable energy. I say ‘up until now’ because, unfortunately, this highly motivating and enabling source of income is now under threat from cuts of over half to the rates paid for small scale installations.
However I hope that tariffs for community energy projects will be protected – and having heard our climate change minister Greg Barker say recently on the radio that he’s “looking into” that option, I’m impatient to see him deliver it. This government promised to be the greenest ever – and one way to ensure that the current economic woes don’t force them to break that promise is to lend their wholehearted support to community energy.