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by Liam Kirkaldy
18 April 2014
People power

People power

When Eigg switched on its electricity grid on 1 February 2008, it marked the first time in the history of the island that residents and businesses had continuous access to power.

Up until then each resident had been dependent upon costly and inefficient generators. In introducing an integrated system of wind, water and solar-based renewables, fed into a stand-alone, localised grid, the island went from being reliant on diesel generators, to being the world’s first self-sufficient, renewable powered island.

Maggie Fyffe, a member of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, says the change came when the island’s residents took ownership of the island.

“We’d never had mains electric, I’ve been here thirty years and I can remember it being talked about the whole time. The idea was to persuade someone to put a sub-sea cable in, but no one would consider it because of the size of the island – there wouldn’t be much profit versus the cost of putting it in. But when the trust bought the island it came up again and we thought about using renewables. We got involved with a company called E-Connect, which suggested an island-wide grid, using three technologies – hydro, wind and solar. We managed to raise £1.6 million, then we built it.

She continues: “It has made a huge difference to costs. Diesel is expensive, getting them serviced is expensive, and it is a total nightmare if they break down, so everybody was absolutely delighted when we got the mains switched on. There has been a huge amount of interest internationally, people have come from all over the world to look at it – it was the first system to link up all three technologies.”

Community ownership is a fairly wide-reaching concept, covering people coming together to work on energy efficiency or combating fuel poverty, to communities bulk-buying energy to get a cheaper price or managing part of the grid. Generally though, it means a community buying a stake in electricity generation – allowing them to invest the profits in services of benefit to those in the surrounding area.

In the years since the Eigg community first took control of energy generation the idea has spread. The Scottish Government has put its weight behind growing the community ownership model, launching the CARES loan scheme in 2011, which provides finance to groups during the pre-planning stage and setting a target for 500MW of energy generation to be community and locally owned by 2020.

Energy and Enterprise Minister Fergus Ewing said: “I’ve seen first-hand how some of the money from renewables is directly making a difference. It was remarkable to see how the purchase of a fishing boat in Orkney brought jobs to a number of young people in a rural area. Local communities should follow suit. They need to be empowered, to identify the issues and opportunities in their area and decide what to do about them. Ownership of renewable energy projects like hydro or wind schemes is a means to do that by providing a long-term income stream which communities can use towards supporting social and economic activity.” 

The Government claims that hitting the 500MW target could be worth up to £2.4bn to Scottish communities as well as rural businesses over the lifetime of the projects. Ewing says it can provide a viable future for some of Scotland’s most fragile rural areas. He believes that communities are attracted to the idea of owning energy generation; they just need a push in the right direction.

Jennifer Ramsay is a Community Benefit Officer for Local Energy Scotland – the organisation charged with helping deliver the Scottish Government’s policy. She says: “The main benefit to the CARES pre-planning loan is that if the project doesn’t get planning, or it hits some other insurmountable hurdle, then we can write off the loan, which then becomes a grant essentially from the Scottish Government. It de-risks the early stage of planning, making it easier for communities to look at these projects.

“Communities feel that if there is going to be a wind farm near their town then they might as well make money from it, their attitude is different if they can think: every time that turbine goes round it means more money for the youth club. I think we are getting to the point where the cumulative impact of wind farms is getting too much and they don’t want a large-scale project, but one community turbine bringing income to the area is far preferable,” she adds.

But the idea is attractive on a number of levels.

Anne Schiffer, Energy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says: “It allows ordinary people to take an active role in a green energy revolution but communities are also much more positive about energy infrastructure like wind turbines if they have a stake in them. For the developer, the benefit is that by offering community ownership, it is much easier to convince people to have a wind farm near their community.”

She continues: “An example is a project in Nielston which is run by a community development trust in partnership with a commercial developer. The wind farm will generate an estimated £10 million over the lifetime of the project which it will use to develop projects outlined in the town’s vision document. The community benefited from partnering with a commercial developer who carried the risks at the early stages and brought a wealth of experience that helped to move the wind farm from the drawing board into reality.”

Part of the attraction then, lies in the idea of working in partnership. Community groups are unlikely to have the skills and resources necessary to take on a project on their own, since they are likely to lack the time, money, technical expertise and experience of the planning process necessary to make a scheme work. For the developer, working with the community is much easier than working against them, which is often the perception with the development of large-scale renewable projects such as wind farms.

Scotland Against Spin is a campaign group aiming to raise awareness of what it sees as the damage done to the natural environment by renewable projects. Linda Holt, spokesperson for the group, argues that community ownership is a positive step, though she is sceptical of claims that the community ownership model could transform Scotland’s energy generation.

She says: “Certainly they are a great idea if they make financial sense and a community wants them. But getting a community wholeheartedly behind a wind development is very difficult, particularly if it will impact some members of the community more negatively than others.”

The Neilston project Anne Schiffer mentions serves to illustrate some of the challenges in calling a project ‘community owned’.

The community raised £950,000 for the 10MW project – allowing it to own a 28 per cent stake. But, unlike in an island project like Eigg – with the sea providing a clear, natural boundary to the edge of the community – it is much harder to define what constitutes the community of Neilston. 

Holt says: “The community wind farm at Neilston is a notorious example because it simply ignored the community at Uplawmoor which would be exposed to the harshest impacts. Wind projects have a record of creating conflict, division and a legacy of bitterness and disengagement in rural communities, and being a ‘community’ project is no safeguard against this outcome."

But perhaps the single biggest barrier to the widespread adaptation of community energy developments is the fact that it is virtually impossible for community energy groups in Scotland to supply to local residents (Eigg, which uses a mini grid, is an exception).

One of Friends of the Earth’s partners is a large Belgian cooperative called Ecopower, with around 43,000 members. The coop generates electricity and sells it back to those in the community, reducing their energy bills in the process. This is much harder in the UK, leading to a gap between owning a stake in generation and seeing it reflected in energy bills. According to Ecopower, people who own part of renewable energy projects also tend to become more efficient users, because they make the connection between generation and consumption.

But this is likely to change, with a project run by Good Energy near Aberdeen currently going through the planning process offering an example of how the model could move forward. The project will be community-owned in the normal way – with profits going towards community development – but if residents use Good Energy as their supplier, and live within a certain distance of the wind farm, they also get a local electricity tariff – meaning lower bills.

There are questions though, over how applicable European examples are to Scotland – with even campaigners accepting that the local ownership model has limits in a country hoping to export renewable energy across Europe.

Schiffer says: “Scotland has 25 per cent of the wind potential in Europe, but a population of around five million people. Now, obviously, five million people don’t need 25 per cent of the wind potential in Europe so in this context I would say, ‘yes, we need more community energy’ but if we want to do it on a larger scale, and export renewable energy across Europe, then there is plenty of space for larger-scale projects.

“It is also important to remember that community ownership can speed up the growth of renewable capacity in general. We could wait for international action by governments, but that could take years, whereas something like the feed-in tariff, allows people to own electricity generation today and can therefore drive renewables forward very quickly.”

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