Photograph by Kristian Buus, In Pictures/Corbis
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Jake Beautyman installs solar panels on a barn roof on Grange Farm, near Balcombe, in the United Kingdom

Photograph by Kristian Buus, In Pictures/Corbis

In the U.K., Community Renewable Energy Pushes for More Power

Buoyed by Pope Francis’ new encyclical, community groups have been trying to tackle climate change on their own. But they’re not having an easy time.

Joe Nixon remembers when the hopeful, festival atmosphere of the anti-fracking demonstrations two summers ago in Balcombe disappeared.

Riot police surrounded the oil drilling site 30 miles south of London to fend off protesters. "I thought the police were supposed to be on our side, daddy," Nixon's daughter remarked.

After drilling one exploratory well in 2013, the energy company, Cuadrilla Resources, stopped the project. It was a victory for Nixon and the others. And a larger accomplishment came later, when a new source of energy popped up in Balcombe. Sixty-nine solar panels now crown a local barn rooftop. It’s the first step by Nixon and his neighbors to turn the village to 100 percent renewable energy, and to go from protesting one type of power to generating another.

Climate action advocates are increasingly touting the potential of community energy. In contrast with lumbering, complex international negotiations to lower global fossil fuel emissions, neighbors have been able to move relatively quickly on local solar or wind energy projects. They even have backing from the Vatican.

"While the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference," Pope Francis wrote in his climate change encyclical. (Read more about how the Vatican was going green before the encyclical.)

Green Energy and Red Tape

An email from the London-based nonprofit climate activist group 10:10 first gave the Balcombe neighbors the idea of launching a renewable energy project. The neighbors were on board. But they didn’t realize how difficult it would be.

They looked at perhaps 100 rooftops, some of which would have been “fantastic” for solar power, says Nixon. But finding suitable community solar sites can be a challenge because buildings that can support large projects often are owned by landlords who don't see the advantage of reducing future energy costs through solar. (Their tenants pay the electric bills.)

That’s just one reason most of the more than 5,000 community energy groups in the United Kingdom focus on modest efforts like household energy audits and weatherization. Only a few hundred have tried generating electricity, says Philip Wolfe, chairman of the nonprofit Community Energy England and an industry pioneer who served as first chief executive of BP Solar in the early 1980s.

Community solar is now more affordable because of the rapid drop in the cost of solar panels. But Wolfe believes community energy thrives better in countries like Germany and Denmark, which have strong government support for renewables. In the U.K., clean energy incentives “are all relatively complex and the government makes them more complicated as time goes on,” he says.

The U.K. has cut renewable energy subsidies, with onshore wind especially out of favor since conservatives’ May election win. The favorable rate paid to clean energy generators changes as often as every three months. And the government has signaled plans to scale back a key investor tax break.

"The conservative government appear to be anti-renewable, but pro-community, so it's a difficult marriage," says Sonya Bedford, head of the renewables team at the Exeter-based law firm, Stephens Scown LLP.

Getting a connection to the U.K. electric grid also can be expensive. Like those in most developed countries, the U.K.’s grid was designed decades ago to distribute power from large central stations. It's not set up for decentralized energy, and grid operators want new generators to bear the cost of upgrading the system. According to Bedford, connecting a 500-kilowatt wind turbine to the grid probably would have cost a community 100,000 pounds ($156,030) six years ago. It now costs as much as 6 million pounds ($9,361,800).

The law also makes it difficult for community energy groups to sell power directly to customers. The cooperative Wolfe chairs, Westmill, has 1,650 members and produces enough power for 1,400 customers. "It would be a perfect match" to sell the power locally, Wolfe says. But the co-op has to sell power through a licensed power provider as a go-between.

The U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) says in an email that it is “committed to empowering communities so they can take control of their energy use, cut their bills and contribute to carbon emissions targets." A working group will issue a report later this year on barriers and opportunities for community energy. "The impact of these groups in the overall energy market is growing," DECC says.

DECC notes that U.K.'s current market rules do allow groups choices for selling power locally, including by becoming licensed power providers. But Wolfe says these options are onerous, especially for community groups made mainly of volunteers with other full-time jobs.

That's the case in Balcombe, where Nixon, a restaurant manager, works on clean energy alongside a wine expert, a head gardener, a pilot, and an information technology manager. "We have a real mix of talent," Nixon says.

Powering Up

With 10:10’s help, the Balcombe group set up a community cooperative called REPOWERBalcombe. In the U.K., cooperatives can seek investors, and those investors can expect a modest return from energy sales, typically about 5 to 7 percent. Excess revenue goes to a community benefit fund. Many U.K. groups devote these funds to assisting low-income local households with energy costs.

Balcombe’s farm rooftop solar installation, funded with 36,500 pounds ($57,000) from local investors and grants, is a small start. It's able to generate enough to power for just seven of the village’s 760 homes. But it’s been transformative for REPOWERBalcombe.

"We are not an anti-fracking campaign," Nixon says. "We are pro-energy. We want to show there are alternatives to digging fossil fuel out of the ground."

This summer, the group is putting solar on the roofs of two local primary schools, and the schools plan to incorporate the installation into the curriculum. The co-op also hopes to raise funds for a 5 million pound ($7.8 million) solar project that will provide 100 percent of the power for Balcombe and a neighboring village.

Despite obstacles, Wolfe says many community energy groups are motivated to succeed.

"Energy is traditionally something that is done to you. You have no control. People are fed up with that,” he says. “This is a way of taking your energy future into your hands."