“By sharing this information and making it public, communities will be able to make sure they are getting the best possible deal,” said Energy Minister Fergus Ewing upon announcing in April that the Community Benefit Register was up and running. Designed to ensure communities across Scotland maximise rewards received from renewable energy developments, the initiative prioritised transparency as a means to deliver tangible results.
More than four months on, Community Energy Scotland (CES) is preparing for the official launch. Scotland’s only national charity devoted to supporting communities develop renewable energy projects, the Highland-based body developed and now administers the new register under the Community and Renewable Energy Loan Scheme (CARES) following a public consultation on the proposal nearly two years ago.
Since April, ten groups involved in renewable projects throughout Scotland – from providers such as ScottishPower Renewables to the likes of East Renfrewshire Council as recipients – have submitted information for inclusion in the online database; this number is expected to rise in the coming months as CES rides the wave of interest likely to accompany a much publicised launch.
“There have been several hundred visitors to the site and we are just building up the entries now,” CES Development Officer, Jennifer Ramsay, who is tasked with responsibility for the register, told Holyrood Renewables. “Obviously, it is voluntary so it is just a case of making sure that people understand why we’re doing it and people want to give their information. We have seen a steady increase in people committing, both providers and recipients – providers [being] the power companies and the recipients, the community groups or local authorities.”
Typically, community benefit alludes to a form of cash payment, either one-off or annual, set aside by a commercial developer for the community concerned according to the amount of energy produced by a development. However, in this case, contributors are encouraged to adopt a much more expansive definition of the term, the objective being to construct a single source of financial and nonfinancial benefits reaped from renewables that prospective parties can consult ahead of entering negotiations.
As Ewing said: “An established renewables developer will always know what the ‘going rate’ for community benefits is – but a community which has never negotiated before, and those rural businesses developing for the first time, may not.”
Neil Gerrard, Senior Development Manager at Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE), is a member of the Scottish Government’s Community Renewables Implementation Group which was tasked with setting the strategy that would guide the register ahead of rollout.
Amid vast disparities between different schemes as to the level of payment per megawatt and ‘sketchy’ information about the amount of money changing hands, Gerrard and his 11 colleagues in the group believed the register could promote a progressive rate.
“The industry itself has responded to communities being more knowledgeable of what to expect,” he told Holyrood Renewables. “SSE – one of the biggest players – has said they will give £5,000 per MW, albeit half of that will go to the local community and the other half they will retain in a development fund that they will distribute themselves.
“It was to influence that process of a community being able to negotiate by having all the information available, readily in a register, to reflect how developers are increasing their contributions. We’re gradually getting more and more per MW up front from commercial schemes but this is purely voluntary, there’s no legislation that says developers have to do this.”
Despite the SNP Government’s ambitions to achieve 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity use from renewable sources by 2020, implementing a compulsory scheme in a bid to build a fuller picture could prove counterproductive, warned Gerrard. “We want people to be open about their discussions; we don’t want these things to be behind closed doors. We want there to be an open dialogue between communities and developers,” he added.
Shining a further light on the financial inducements targeted at local communities will undoubtedly fuel further complications, though. Eight days prior to the register being declared open, Ramblers Scotland told Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee that increasing community benefits amounted to “little short of bribery” to help push through planning approval.
“To some extent, developers will see that bringing communities onside might make their planning seem easier but this is not a planning issue,” Gerrard added. “Whether or not there is a community benefit package there isn’t an issue. The issue at planning is whether the community has been consulted or not.”
As for the register itself, CES has high hopes the move could usher in increased transparency as wind-farm developments continue to spring up across Scotland. “We would, ideally, hope to get everything on there, there is no reason why we wouldn’t but it really just depends on what time people have got to fill it in,” said Ramsay.
“For some of the bigger developers that have multiple schemes, it is going to take them some time to get their information on there. But, certainly, [we’re] hoping to get the majority of projects in Scotland on there.”