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Decentralised energy: How a Bristol community protects itself against soaring costs

August 31, 2023

As energy costs continue to soar in Britain, communities are increasingly exploring local, sustainable methods for the generation and distribution of power.

The Bristol Energy Cooperative (BEC), a community-owned energy enterprise which has brought 17 clean energy projects into fruition since 2011, including two solar farms, has been an influential force in establishing several locally-managed projects including the ‘Water Lilies’ project in Lawrence Weston – a community ‘microgrid’ which enables citizens to power their own homes, reducing their reliance on the National Grid.

The development, described by co-founder Andy O’Brien as an ‘energy island,’ involves powering 33 energy efficient homes on a former reservoir site, which are connected using a Tesla battery charged with any surplus energy which goes unused. Homes are equipped with solar panels integrated using a smart system.

Utilising renewable infrastructure including 120kW solar array, a 444 kWh community battery developed by the Clean Energy Prospector (CEPRO) alongside Bright Green Future (BGF), The Water Lilies project aims to offer residents energy independence, pioneering an alternative form of energy ownership which may eventually allow local communities to manage the microgrid themselves.

Projects such as these have helped the Bristol Energy Cooperative to provide over £250,000 in community benefit payments to local organisations, channelling £350,000 into schemes and causes which enable communities to establish resilient infrastructures for the production and distribution of sustainable energy.

BEC also maximises community benefit by reinvesting profits in further local community energy initiatives; income from the Water Lilies project is being distributed among residents through Ambition Lawrence Weston (ALW), an energy startup which in 2016 received £155,000 from charitable trust Power to Change as part of a loan arrangement organised by BEC for the construction of solar panels. ALW has since formed community interest company ACE (Ambition Community Energy), which in 2020 was granted permission to construct a community-owned wind turbine.

The project, which remains the only new wind turbine to have been built in Britain this year, is capable of powering 3000 homes and can generate £1 million worth of electricity per year at current prices. It will save an estimated 87,600 in CO2 emissions over the course of its lifetime.

Andy O’Brien believes that BEC is emblematic of heightened community-led resilience to rising energy costs, having written in The Ecologist that

“community-owned renewable energy is the password to an alternative future. Instead of extracting resources and bookending a linear system with exploitation of people and the environment, this system is regenerative and fair”.

Tanne Spielmann, campaigns manager at BEC, told Resilience that

“community energy is a trusted, cost-effective way of not only providing cheaper and reliable renewable energy to local people, but also helps to bring people together”. “It teaches people about the energy system, engages and reaches those most in need,” she added. “When people are invested in a local wind turbine or solar farm, they care about it and feel like they are helping to shape their own future”.

Spielmann also suggested that BEC could facilitate the growth of further sustainable, cooperatively-organised energy initiatives, stating that

“there are hundreds of groups like us around the country with renewable energy projects which are partly owned or controlled directly by communities, like England’s tallest wind turbine in Lawrence Weston. “They are hugely benefiting local people across the UK and around the world,” she added.

Indeed, locally-owned energy cooperatives which allow residents to actively participate in making decisions over how energy is generated and used provide an alternative to an energy system which is dominated by fossil fuels. Since 2015, the government has provided £20 billion more in support for fossil fuel producers than it has for renewable energy producers.

On a nationwide scale, the development of renewable energy infrastructure remains sluggish. While the government continues to issue new oil and gas drilling licences in the hope of driving down energy costs, in spite of the fact that approximately 80% of the oil extracted from the North Sea is exported due to its incompatibility with British refineries, the present ban on the development of new onshore wind costs the taxpayer £5.1 billion per year.

Developing new oil and gas, research shows, will likely have a negligible impact on energy bills, as North Sea oil enterprises are increasingly owned and operated by multinationals and foreign, state backed entities. According to research by think tank Common Wealth, in 2020, 30% of North Sea oil and gas was owned by private firms, a 20% increase from a decade prior. Yet while the government continues to renege on important net zero obligations, community-driven initiatives such as Lawrence Weston’s Water Lilies project indicate that it is possible to provide low carbon energy initiatives for local communities through efforts driven by local investors and campaign groups.

Renewable technologies are becoming increasingly commercially viable, having declined rapidly in cost over the past few decades; solar PV module prices have fallen by 80% since 2010, while the cost of wind turbines has fallen by 38% since 2009. Yet our energy generation system remains rigged in favour of fossil fuels, with all energy prices pegged to those of natural gas, which typically produces the last unit of energy required to meet demand.

Renewables, despite having produced 43.1% of energy in 2020, remain sidelined within a system which prioritises gas development, as prices must be kept high enough to cover gas plants’ operating costs. Britain’s continued dependence on natural gas, which according to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) was responsible for 95% of the increase in energy bills between 2019 and 2021, has, according to the CommonWealth think tank, “played a major role in transmitting shocks like the conflict in Ukraine directly onto families in Britain”.

Indeed, UCL Professor Michael Grubb has suggested that the wholesale pricing system is in need of urgent reform, having argued that “the design of electricity systems has failed to catch up with the revolution in renewable energy,” and that “energy markets aren’t designed to cope efficiently with sources like renewables which cost a lot to build but far less than fossil fuels to run”.

The community-organised, locally-owned energy initiatives spearheaded by BEC have demonstrated the benefits of an affordable, sustainable alternative to a wholesale energy market dominated by volatile fossil fuels. Decentralised methods of producing and distributing energy can wrest control from the hands of monopolistic oil and gas firms, who have made record profits during the cost of living crisis, placing power into the hands of local communities.

Thomas Perrett

I am a freelance journalist and researcher covering climate change and energy policy. I am particularly interested in exposing fossil fuel industry lobbying, corporate greenwashing and climate science denial.

Tags: community energy projects, decentralised energy production