People love renewable energy, so why don't politicians get it?

Robin Hood: One of Britain’s best-loved folk heroes. He speaks to our national love of subverting the rules. Fighting against institutional injustice, he protected the most vulnerable from the predatory practices of a corrupt establishment.

Nottingham City Council’s not-for-profit energy supply company, Robin Hood Energy is not only the first of its kind, but the perfect contemporary manifestation of this spirit of righteous derring-do.

Aware that the most vulnerable households – those on prepayment meters – were getting the worst deal from our current set up of ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers, and frustrated with the agonisingly slow progress from the Government, Nottingham City Council decided to take matters into their own hands and become a fully licensed supplier themselves.

This bold plan had three aims:

  1. Tackle local fuel poverty
  2. Return all profits to customers in reduced tariffs
  3. Support community energy projects to get local renewable generation off the ground. 

As Nottingham’s project lead Gail Scholes told me back in May, "navigating the onerous and painful regulation minefield this entailed was not for the faint hearted. The UK’s energy market rules are sclerotic and abstruse, designed and written by their incumbent beneficiaries the Big Six in a way that seems calculated to freeze out new market entrants".

But Nottingham bravely battled through, and a little over two years later has, rather serendipitously, finally launched Robin Hood Energy at the start of Britain’s annual Community Energy Fortnight.

Nottingham’s project is just a part of a fast growing national movement to take back power – both literally and figuratively – for the people. The past five years have seen local community renewable energy schemes mushrooming from Cornwall to the Highlands. Many of them are opening their doors to the public over Community Energy Fortnight: see community solar in action at Palmers Green Mosque in London, community hydro at Osney Lock in Oxfordshire and community wind at Marshill Farm in Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Surveys of public attitudes to different energy sources consistently show that British people really like renewable energy and want to see more of it. But throw community ownership into the mix and like turns to love – a recent poll commissioned by Co-Op Energy showed that even Conservative voters would overwhelmingly support a local wind farm if it was owned and controlled by the community. Nearly four-fifths of those surveyed want the government to do more to help communities generate their own power and keep the profits.

Unfortunately, the government seems to have little interest in what the public want from the UK’s energy system, steam-rolling forward with fracking in the teeth of intense and growing public hostility while launching a savage surprise attack on the nation’s favourite source of energy, solar power.

The story of Balcombe in West Sussex perhaps best embodies the mismatch between public preferences and UK energy policy. Two years after Cuadrilla packed up and left following huge protests against their plans to frack there, the residents of Balcombe were on the cusp of realising their mission to generate enough locally owned solar energy to meet the electricity needs of every home in the village. The people of Balcombe planned to build a 5MW solar farm, and began to scramble to raise the £5m necessary to get the scheme built before April 2016 – when solar support came to an abrupt end. Sadly Balcombe succumbed to the ever-shrinking window for government support. The good news is that the solar farm was still built but is owned by a commercial developer without any opportunity for community investment.

Today any community energy is seriously limited by the cuts to financial aid and unnecessary planning restrictions, as a result 90% of community energy groups said their projects were partially to completely at risk. For the foreseeable future there will be no new community solar farms, no more community wind or hydro schemes, and 1m fewer solar roofs installed nationwide over the next five years. This also opens more doors for fracking, like the approved tests in North Yorkshire

The 2015 Community Energy Conference was preoccupied with the question of how to survive the government assault and move to a world after subsidy. One theme dominated: local supply. Experience in Europe shows that if we changed the rules to allow local generators to capture more of the retail value of the energy they produce by selling it locally, some renewable technologies could already be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Robin Hood Energy may be based in Nottingham, and conceived to tackle fuel poverty there and help local community energy groups. But because of the market rules for suppliers, they are obliged to offer their power to consumers anywhere in the country. When I asked Gail if they had considered only supplying their energy to local customers, she told me “if that could have been done we would have done that.”

‘Buy local’ is a sustainability mantra that should apply as much to energy as it does to anything else. If the government are determined to pull the plug on clean power subsidies, the least they can do in return is to make local energy markets possible in the UK.