Drive past a solitary wind turbine in a farmer’s field or a row of solar panels on a factory roof and it’s perhaps hard to see how they can play a major role in meeting the huge energy needs of the UK. In isolation such renewable projects are tiny in comparison to the huge fossil fuel and nuclear power stations that still provide much of the UK’s energy. But looking at the combined contribution now being made by all these small schemes highlights that independent generation is already playing an important role – and it is gathering pace.
The last few years have seen huge growth in the numbers of commercial-scale renewable energy projects owned by businesses, landowners and communities. According to the latest Energy Entrepreneurs report into the sector, there are now almost 3,000 independent – those not owned by the Big Six UK energy companies – generation projects of over 50kW capacity in operation across the country. While each one may be relatively small, their combined output is now close to meeting the entire power needs of the UK’s public sector, or enough to power some 4.6 million households. As more and more of these projects get connected to the grid, the spread of renewable technologies and locations is improving and helping smooth out variability of generation. Poor wind conditions in one part of the country should mean good conditions for solar in another.
“With the right support and encouragement, the independent generation sector in the UK can play a much bigger part in meeting the nation’s energy needs as well as providing wider economic, social and environmental benefits.”
Iain Robertson, SmartestEnergy
As well as making a significant contribution to the UK’s security of supply and emissions reduction targets, many of these independent projects are also making an important economic contribution for their owners and the communities they are based in. For example, rising costs, concerns over security of energy supplies and a desire to reduce carbon footprint have inspired many businesses to invest in their own power plants including wind turbines, roof-mounted solar panels and anaerobic digestion facilities. Accessing cheaper energy also helps them become more competitive.
Renewable energy projects have helped many farmers successfully diversify their operations and in many cases enabled them to stay on their land rather than leave the sector due to growing financial pressures.
While the estimated £1bn a year which independent commercial-scale renewable energy projects now generate is providing a valuable income stream for many, the wider benefits from investment in the projects is also significant. Many of the most active areas in terms of new projects are rural communities where construction of projects is providing significant opportunities for contractors and suppliers.
The potential for local communities to benefit from developing their own generation is also significant. At SmartestEnergy, we work with many community schemes funded by Triodos and which are having a real impact, often in rural and fragile communities. At Udny in Aberdeenshire for example, over the 20 year life span of a £1.45m turbine up to £5m in profit is expected to be generated – equivalent to £2,000 for every resident of the Udny Green and Pitmedden villages. Funds generated so far have paid for projects such as the leasing of a vehicle for the First Responders, part of a network of first aiders in rural areas who attend incidents ahead of the ambulance service.
While the independent generation sector in the UK is already sizeable and growing fast, a glance across at some of our European neighbours suggests the potential for a much greater role. In Germany for example, community energy projects made up 40% of the country’s total renewable energy capacity in 2010. A further 11% was owned by farmers with the major utilities only controlling some 13.5% of the market.
With the right support and encouragement, the independent generation sector in the UK can play a much bigger part in meeting the nation’s energy needs as well as providing wider economic, social and environmental benefits.
Iain is head of generation at SmartestEnergy, the UK’s leading purchaser of power from independent renewable generators. It works with over 600 generation projects, from community schemes to large commercial projects, enabling them to sell the power they generate. They are proud to champion these independent generators who are making a significant economic contribution in the UK as well as helping meet our energy needs and climate change ambitions.
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