Insights from Community Energy Awards judge Mark Billsborough


We asked Mark Billsborough, Head of Renewables and Hedging at Co-op Energy and judge of the Community Energy Awards about his view on the sector and being involved in the 2018 Community Energy Awards

What are the most important issues facing the community energy sector at the moment?
The community energy sector faces many different challenges at the moment, including finance, investment, planning and political support, however the most important issue seems to be the very likely end of the Feed in Tariff in April 2019. Knowing that a project can get a guaranteed price for their exported energy is very valuable and so the removal of this adds a great deal of uncertainty, especially for small-scale projects.

What advice would you offer community energy organisations on how to overcome these issues?
One great aspect of the community energy sector is the depth of knowledge that has been obtained, often gained through painful experiences! I think all of this knowledge needs to be shared so that mistakes aren’t repeated – in a subsidy-free world there is a lower margin for error. Projects need to scrutinise every element of a project, and not to fall in the trap of repeating old models. In our experience there are cost savings to be had in every part of a project, you just need to ask! I would also recommend speaking to us at an early stage about the route to market, as Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) are going to be the primary route to market and we have a wealth of experience to offer.

How has Co-op Energy supported the community energy sector? 
Since its conception in 2011, Co-op Energy has sought to support the community energy sector. We’re the first (and only) energy supplier to have a Community Energy Strategy which sets out targets we have set ourselves and which are reviewed annually. The primary way we provide support is through fair access to the market through PPAs. We offer the same price for each technology, no matter the site’s location or size. This has proved to be very successful and our community PPA portfolio now has 69 sites in it, more than doubling the number we had since I joined Co-op Energy in 2016. Other than this we have always provided extensive support to innovative community projects like Energy Local, and have been the main sponsor for the Community Energy Fortnight and Conference for the last 5 years.

Can you name any particularly projects that have benefited from this? 
We believe that all of the sites that we have a PPA with are benefitting from our support, this can be from providing market access through to our simplified contract process. Ensuring the most benefits get to the projects means that hopefully more funds are available to the local communities they are in.

What are you most proud of having achieved at Co-op Energy and why?
When I joined, the business had started looking to secure PPAs with large commercial renewable sites. I saw this as both a risk to the business and lost opportunity to bring Coop Energy back to its reasons for being; Democratic and Sustainable. My introduction to the community energy sectors gave me a chance to find a way to simplify the PPA offering to communities, and to pass the benefits back to those communities.

What do you feel makes a successful community energy project?
I think success can be measured in a number of ways, but a project which is maximising the output from their asset while providing demonstrable benefits to the local community is surely a successful one!

What are your overall impressions as a judge having seen the shortlist for the community energy
It’s a cliché, but it’s been so difficult. There is so much innovation in the sector. In the commercial
world innovation can be stifled to create better returns. This shortlist proves it’s not so in community energy.

We want to thank Mark for taking the time to share some of his insights.