York Community Energy

Conferences, soapboxes, and a bit of politics

Last week was a busy one for the YCE team. Members of the Management Committee were variously lobbying MPs, attending conferences and out proclaiming the benefits of community energy.

Wednesday was the great “For the Love Of…” mass lobby of MPs on climate change. Activists from all over the UK met their MPs in or around Parliament to remind them that tackling climate change requires a far more concerted effort than we are currently managing.

York Community Energy was formed out of a desire for a constructive grassroots response to climate change, so we were keen to be among the York campaigners putting their concerns to our MPs. YCE chair Richard Lane also represented the group in a pre-recorded section for the Radio York breakfast show.

YCE Chair Richard Lane and Treasurer Tom Sherwen with Rachael Maskell MP at the Climate Bobby.

YCE Chair Richard Lane and Treasurer Tom Sherwen with Rachael Maskell MP at the Climate Lobby.

York Central MP Rachael Maskell has made clear her commitment to fight climate change and the need to decarbonise our energy system (the national Labour Party has policy calling for a zero-carbon grid by 2030), and her support for renewable energy. She has been pushing for the public sector to do more to support renewable energy through public procurement. She highlighted the inconsistency of Government energy policy, which calls for carbon reduction but has cut funding and blocked countless wind projects, including community schemes with significant local support.

As if to underline this point, the Government made two announcements the next day which effectively block all onshore wind developments in the UK for the foreseeable future.

Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, announced that onshore wind would be excluded from the Renewables Obligation scheme a year early. The Renewables Obligation scheme has been running in various forms since the 1990s and is the main method by which the Government tries to decarbonise the grid. All energy suppliers are required to produce a certain proportion of renewable energy or pay others to do so on their behalf (this is what’s often referred to generically as ‘subsidy’). From next April, those payments will no longer go to support onshore wind – despite it being well established as generating the most carbon-free electricity per pound spent, and popular, with public approval hitting a highest-ever level of 68% in a February 2015 survey by DECC.

Almost simultaneously, Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (successor to Eric Pickles), released a ministerial statement and supplementary planning guidance. These have had the effect of setting the bar for granting planning permission for onshore wind projects unreachably high (in stark contrast to the automatic green light that chancellor George Osborne wants to see for fracking). For instance, there must be no ‘unresolved objections’. This is a criteria that if applied consistently would see the planning system grind to a halt.

All of which, though frustrating and a huge backwards step for the UK, does support the plan adopted at our AGM to develop an urban solar scheme as a first project.

Also on Thursday, YCE Treasurer Tomás Sherwen represented YCE at the EnergyExchange in London chaired by Anthony Day, another YCE member. It was broad event with representation from central and local government, housing associations and the private sector.

A big highlight was a panel discussion on community energy projects including speakers and a from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and three councils who are successfully partnering (and partnered!) with local community groups to deliver community energy locally. Mairi from OxFutures talked not only about their inspiring work with the Low Carbon Hub delivering multiple hydro, solar and insulation projects, but also about their £12.5m of projects in the pipeline. Our neighbours over in Calder Valley, Pennine Community Power, talked about council and community getting together to put up a wind turbine. And Plymouth council spoke of the work enabling the energy produced by Plymouth Energy Community to be sold directly back to the community.

In all it was a enjoyable day and very useful to see the council perspective on community energy from councils that have already delivered projects.

Wildflowers flourish between the rows of solar panels

Wildflowers and grasses flourish between the rows of solar panels

On Friday, YCE Committee members attended the “Home Grown Energy” conference at the Westmill wind and solar farm in Oxfordshire. This is the largest community-owned wind farm in the UK, and the five 1.3MW turbines were joined in 2012 by a 5MW solar farm. The conference took place in a marquee at the foot of the row of turbines, and as well as sessions on wildlife, planning, policy and finance, there were the chances to tour the turbines and the solar farm. It was a beautiful location, with skylarks singing near-constantly and hares running through the wildflowers between the rows of solar panels. You can see a small collection of photos from our visit on Flickr.

Rich-at-WestmillWhat has been achieved at Westmill is truly inspiring – as well as the thousands of tonnes of CO2 avoided, it has provided habitat and a thriving educational resource for the region, and demonstrated a model of large-scale generation that remains under community control.

Meanwhile back in York on Saturday, YCE Vice-Chair Kit Bennett and member Anthony Day were (separately) atop a soapbox in York city centre, to describing the benefits of community energy to the good people of York. It was an event organised by the York branch of Toastmasters International, the Eborators, who had invited us to speak.