With the publication of the government’s recent Energy Security Strategy, there has been much discussion around how UK citizens might feel about renewable energy projects being built in their own local area.
Here, we talk to Richard O’Brien, corporate finance manager at Triodos Bank UK, and Alex Grayson, trustee of Triodos customer Empower Community Foundation, about how renewables can not only be accepted by communities - but can in fact be welcomed as a force for positive local impact.
In response to the Energy Security Strategy, membership body Community Energy England said that the power of ‘localisation and democratisation’ of energy was neglected. What does this mean for you?
Richard: We know that it’s essential to decarbonise our energy system to combat climate change. For this to be successful, people must feel like they are actively involved and included in that transition.
Renewable energy generation does and will continue to include a distributed network of small-scale energy generation as well as huge offshore schemes. In our view these local schemes can be more impactful where they are community led and owned. Through the Triodos Crowdfunding platform, we’ve raised money for a variety of different community energy groups which are more representative and democratic, often involving local people on the board or through involvement in decision making.
All of our community projects put money back into their local areas through surplus income. We’re currently raising finance for Empower Community Foundation, and it is forecast to distribute up to £1.3 million over the next 16 years. This money can be highly catalytic as it is earned by the community group and so not subject to policy changes or politics.
Alex: Renewables are sometimes referred to as ‘decentralised’ or ‘distributed’ energy. Another term for this would be ‘indigenous’, where the locality of the energy project is key. Empower was founded on the basis that the communities of place where energy projects are located should be benefitting economically from that local energy generation.
Our approach has always been to manage and de-risk renewable energy projects, obtain the best possible commercial terms for their investment and operation, then share the profits with the local community through trusted local partners. This approach is hard-wired into every project we do.
What kind of initiatives does Empower support?
Richard: Empower Community Foundation is a charity that owns two solar parks – Drove Lane near Salisbury in England and New Mains, in Scotland. As Alex has highlighted, the organisation distributes any additional income generated from the sale of its electricity back into the local communities.
In Salisbury, for example, Empower has worked in conjunction with Salisbury Council and with Wiltshire Community Foundation in order to support an initiative called Stronger Families. The programme addresses family breakdown, child poverty and mental illness in one of the most deprived areas of Wiltshire.
Similarly, Empower works with Foundation Scotland to support a variety of local initiatives near its New Mains solar park, including Voluntary Action Angus (VAA). During the pandemic, VAA helped to support vulnerable people in the local community through the Humanitarian Assistance Angus Response Team, which contacted over a staggering 98% of the 4500 vulnerable people in the area.
How does Empower ensure its projects have a positive impact on local people?
Alex: Finding the best qualified and most aligned partners for each of our projects is paramount in order for us to respond to the unique local context. Wiltshire Community Foundation and Foundation Scotland were selected for Drove Lane and New Mains respectively as ideally suited to disseminate local funds. Although the issues faced by the Salisbury and Arbroath communities share some commonality, their individual situations, and responses, are unique.
Richard: Through engaging in this way, community-led schemes like Empower ensure that local people see the benefit of energy projects in their area. Building a zero-carbon energy system is a social issue as well as an environmental one – and community energy is at the forefront of that.
About community-led renewables
Community energy projects connect people and local communities to the renewables being built in their area. They are either owned and controlled by the communities themselves, or this is done in partnership with commercial or public sector organisations. You can find out more from Community Energy England and from Power to People.
About the Triodos Crowdfunding platform
Since the Triodos Crowdfunding platform was launched in 2018, four community-led renewable energy projects have raised direct investment with the bank through crowdfunding investors. These projects have raised millions of pounds to date for community benefit and are committed to continuing to raise more throughout their duration. Empower Community Foundation is currently open for investment on the platform.