The UK has a vast amount to do to secure its energy supplies, cut energy usage and prices and transform its electricity production to all-clean sources. Instead of reviving fossil fuels and nuclear power, community energy entrepreneur Tony McNally argues that the government must support local solutions, including community solar and wind power schemes.

More and more people are aware of the threat to our planet posed by climate change and the need to do something about it. Central to this is accelerating the transition from burning fossil fuels in order to contain global warming within an average rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, thus averting the worst impacts of climate, environmental and ecological breakdown. Massive changes need to happen this decade to transform our energy generation and usage systems if we are to have a hope of meeting this target.

Regrettably, the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow last November failed to agree to the necessary commitments to keep temperature increases within this range. Furthermore, the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is driving up already exceptionally high energy prices, which will see millions more people driven into fuel poverty, and many who will lose their jobs and businesses.

Towards a national energy transition

The imperatives – financial, environmental, geopolitical – for an urgent energy transition that, among other things, decarbonises electricity production are now obvious and urgent. There are two big questions that follow from this recognition. What should the UK government be doing to ensure an urgent national energy transition? And what can citizens and communities do to contribute to this and speed up the transition locally?  

The very first thing is for the government to launch a UK National Energy Efficiency Emergency across every sector of society with the aim over 10 years of achieving a 25% reduction in energy consumption, particularly in the built environment, to put us in line with current German practice. This includes stopping making things worse by building more roads and switching investment to integrated public transport.

It should also prohibit the building of new unsustainable homes and other properties and instead incentivise quality, less carbon-intensive buildings with rigorous insulation and their own carbon-neutral energy sources such as solar panels and ground-source heat pumps. New housing development should feature integrated whole site features such as solar roofs with common storage, generation and consumption to minimise their inefficient engagement with the national grid. For many years organisations such as the Energy Savings Trust, Carbon Trust, the Climate Change Committee, Building Research Establishment, and UK Green Buildings Council have been advocating variations of this approach.

How might this be paid for? There are many possibilities for mobilising funding, but one way would be to halve defence spending progressively over 10 years to invest in renewable energy technology production. At the current rate of defence spending (£58.4 billion in FY2020/21), such savings would more than double the £26 billion that the government says it has so far mobilised for investment in a ‘green industrial revolution’.

Instead of investing in renewables, the government has responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by seeking urgent new sources of oil and gas imports from Arab autocracies, by reneging on commitments not to open new oil and gas fields in the North Sea, and even to reopening consideration of a new coal mine and a revival of fracking. The British Energy Security Strategy (BESS) released earlier this month pushes hard on the revival of such 20th century technologies and dirty fuel sources to fill the energy gap, at the expense of clean renewables that are already mature technologies.

The government is also pushing hard to accelerate the development of new nuclear power plants, despite this being the most expensive means to generate power, the vast (£131 billion so far) ‘back end’ costs of decommissioning nuclear plants, and an inability to store, let alone reprocess, their waste safely. Development of mini nuclear power stations – so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) – is receiving funding from the government’s low carbon investment fund. The Rolls Royce factory at Ansty on the outskirts of Coventry appears to be central to plans to build such unproven and expensive technologies.

What we have known for decades is that we have the potential to generate all our own clean green energy in and around the UK from multiple sources. Over the last two years, wind, solar and hydro power sources have supplied 19-24%, 4% and 1-2% of UK electricity, respectively. Another 12% comes from burning biomass, which is renewable but not especially low carbon. Altogether, such renewable sources accounted for 43% of total UK electricity production in 2020, but this remains a small fraction of their potential. Had Conservative governments since 2015 maintained the low carbon project of the former Labour and Coalition governments, this could have been doubled by now.

Renewable wind power is now the cheapest energy with the potential to generate 100% of British electricity as well as being an energy source to produce ‘green hydrogen’ that can ultimately replace natural gas for heating and transport. There are several other sources of great potential such as hydropower, geothermal, wave power, tidal power such as the Swansea Lagoon, air, canal/river water, and ground source heat pumps.

Community-level transition in Coventry

Many of these renewable solutions are best suited to the windiest, wave-battered or mountainous extremities of the UK such as Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. What, then, can an urban area like Coventry in the flat interior of England offer in terms of transition to renewable energy?

Coventry-based Climate Change Solutions is leading a solar initiative with support from Warwick University students to map large flat and south facing building roofs to plot the potential for solar power in Coventry. A Making Coventry’s Solar Future Prospectus summarising the results of one third of the city identifies the potential for 288,000 solar panels: projection for the whole city its around 1 million panels. This could supply the electricity needs of 90,000 households, or about 60% of the city’s population.

Maximising the benefits of such schemes would bring as many co-located buildings as possible together as a decentralised or community energy cluster which would contain, as well as the solar panels, energy storage, smart systems, electric vehicle charging points and appropriate levels of energy efficiency. This would maximise the generation and use of energy within the cluster and minimise the inefficiencies of importing and exporting via the Western Power grid operator. The National Grid is designed to supply electricity from central power stations to customers via substations, rather than inserting power the other way.

This solar community energy project has other advantages including security of supply and cost control away from the global market, such as we are currently seeing. It would create local jobs and adds to the circular economy. Producing at scale offers the prospect of establishing a Solar Procurement Partnership, providing economies of scale, thus making it more attractive and accessible for less well-off householders. This could avoid off-putting high entry costs (e.g. of buying and fitting solar panels) by raising the investment capital over a 10-20 years, like a mortgage with monthly/annual repayment of capital, interest and service charges.

Some 30 km to the southwest of Coventry, near Stratford-upon-Avon, is a 55, 000 panel solar farm run by Heart of England Community Energy (of which I am a co-founding director) that has produced 14.7MW of green energy since 2016. That is equivalent to supplying 4,500 homes’ needs annually, or about one-third of Stratford’s population. It was built on DEFRA contaminated land that could not be used for farming. Establishing it necessitated raising £16 million from social investment sources at low interest, paid back over 20 years like a mortgage and with services managed by Community for Renewables Ltd. Some £30,000 per year is paid to local relevant charities, particularly Act on Energy, to help people in fuel poverty.

Community energy schemes provide multiple benefits. In terms of addressing the climate and ecological emergency, the bigger they are the better, but they are applicable anywhere from a local school, faith centre to a housing estate, village, business, industrial or retail park up to the scale of a town or city. Such schemes provide energy security, reduce energy bills and create local jobs, thus boosting the local circular economy. It also makes sense commercially and around Coventry is now being supported by the government, National Grid and the local Western Power Operator in order to avoid the prohibitively heavy costs of building a new national grid to service renewable energy generation.

Tony McNally is Managing Director of Climate Change Solutions, a Coventry-based company promoting low carbon energy solutions. He is also a founding co-director of Heart of England Community Energy, a Warwickshire-based community benefit society that owns one of the largest community solar farms in the UK.

The article was completed with input from Richard Reeve and Andrew Rigby.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Image by Grégory ROOSE from Pixabay.

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