People and communities are missing in UK energy, climate change and recovery policy.


CEE response to Energy White Paper and recent policy announcements.

We see trends emerging, ones we have seen before. A government ‘big picture’ that prefers big-cheque tech projects over empowering people. This, along with so much, will have to change .

The Energy White Paper published on Monday 14 December contains the policy detail on the ambitions set out in the 10 Point Plan, Spending Review and National Infrastructure Strategy, all of which signally ignored the vital role of people and communities in consenting to and participating in the change - and of community energy in engaging those people and communities. This despite the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warning repeatedly in its Net Zero Report, the Progress Report and only last week in the Sixth Carbon Budget, “It will not be possible to get close to meeting a Net Zero target without engaging with people or by pursuing an approach that focuses only on supply-side changes.” and “there is currently no Government strategy to engage the public in the transition to a low-carbon and climate resilient economy. This will need to change.”; not least because, “Over 60% of the abatement in our Net Zero scenarios to 2050 involves at least some degree of change from consumers”.

The CCC also endorses the Climate Assembly’s observation on “the importance of involving people in decision-making, not just persuading them to change, as part of a national conversation on the options available for achieving Net Zero and how these options should be pursued.” Any support for involving people in decision-making and this ‘national conversation’ is absent in the government policy.

The White Paper puts welcome emphasis on the importance of ‘local’ and contains an inspiring case-study on Energy Local but nothing practical that can help mobilise the community energy army of passionate, local experts to realise the local opportunities and inspire the wider public to the “societal change” that the Committee on Climate Change says zero-carbon transition requires. There is much emphasis on markets, incentives, consumers - as if this government thinks it can make everything happen with market signals. 

The government seems to want to be the hero that ‘delivers’ net zero by precisely the focus on big-cheque, centralised, supply-side measures that the CCC warns will not suffice. “We will make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind with enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030” pledged the Prime Minister. This won’t work unless we also find ways of reducing and managing local demand. 

The pledges on new nuclear, with talks with EDF aimed at a £20bn investment in Sizewell C announced at the same time as the White Paper, are symptomatic. Nuclear will take too long to come on stream to make a significant contribution to urgent decarbonisation. It is more expensive than renewables and produces baseload power which you can’t turn off, in an era when what we need is flexible solutions to complement variable renewables like wind and solar. 

When Sizewell B was built campaigners calculated that if the same investment were put into demand reduction it would remove the need for the powerstation in perpetuity. Building retrofit is hugely urgent and despite pledges of £3.2bn remains underfunded and the victim of short-term, ill-organised schemes such as the Green Homes Grant. £20bn would go a long way to driving the system change of ‘unprecedented’ scale and speed that the IPCC 1.5 degree report says is required. The recent Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group report identified that the necessary step of bringing all UK homes up to EPC C would need £1.7bn a year in “a comprehensive and long-term investment programme with a dedicated delivery agency”. This would save 25% of household energy, equivalent to the annual output of six nuclear power stations the size of Hinkley Point C and yield net financial benefits amounting to £47bn. So we seem to be failing to rise to challenges, missing out on benefits and heading off down blind alleys.

Investing £1bn in Carbon Capture and Storage that is unlikely to scale in time, if ever and will always be expensive, requiring extra process energy, is also symptomatic of the government’s tendency to embrace big technical ‘future solutions’ that will allow business as usual to continue.

The government is keen to point out we need everyone ‘Together for our Planet’. But it fails to invest the comparatively small amount necessary to enable and mobilise the very people who are most dedicated to getting people and communities on board to deliver solutions at scale, locally, where most energy is used or wasted, which truly would transform the energy system.

The government has recognised that it cannot achieve its carbon reduction goals without onshore renewable energy and that this will require government support to scale. The same is true of community energy. Policy changes over the last 5 years have disabled a passionate and dynamic sector that was more than doubling in size every year between 2014-2017. Hundreds of community energy groups are struggling to make a business case to do anything at all.

Re-instating the Urban Community Energy Fund withdrawn in 2016 and Social Investment Tax Relief, removed in 2015, would lift many projects over the threshold into financial viability. Reversing the recent hike in VAT from 5% to 20% for ‘energy saving measures’, including solar panels and batteries, and ultimately reducing it to zero would also make a difference. Grant programmes to enable community  energy collaborations with local authorities and the public sector and proper resourcing of strategic Local Area Energy Planning would make a real difference.

The consent and active participation of the wider public is essential to achieving net-zero. As the UK Business Secretary and COP President said at the launch of the Mock COP "reaching Net Zero will only be achieved by a joint effort. And for this civil society is vital." However recent policy announcements offer no policies or financial support for this public participation. As we said about the recently published UK Nationally Determined Contributions, 'Climate ambition is futile unless people and communities are engaged'. As the Committee on Climate Change says, "This will need to change". 

Community Energy England continues to work with Westminster and Whitehall including BEIS, Cabinet Office, Number 10, MHCLG and Select Committees to highlight these policy inconsistencies and get change. We will need better to harness the hundreds of MPs who represent constituencies where community energy is active. We are working with partners to unify and amplify the voice of the 3rd sector on these issues. We are promoting the vital role of community energy in Local Area Energy Planning and aiming to improve local and regional collaborations with councils and DNOs so that community energy is less dependent upon the whims of central government.