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‘Powering Up North’: changing our communities’ energy future

What is community energy and why is it important?

The way energy is generated and used is being transformed through increasing the amount of local renewable energy generation, using less through energy efficiency and group buying of energy.  Individuals and local communities can make an important contribution to maintaining energy security, tackling climate change and keeping costs down for consumers.

The Government’s community energy strategy published in 2014 is looking to grow the sector 40-fold by 2020 with a goal for over 500 community energy companies to raise over £1.5 billion from over half a million investors and £2 billion in loans to fund the installation of around 3GW of wind, solar and hydro. Whilst the Strategy has recently been updated and sets out the progress that has been made over the last year, there is a great deal still to do if the sector is to realise it’s full potential.

In the UK, less than 0.5GW of electricity comes from communities or small businesses and there are still a number of barriers actively discouraging local people and businesses from developing green power sources. New rules have made it harder for communities to establish green energy co-operatives and the recent Autumn Statement signalled the removal of tax incentives for community energy schemes.

Community energy can play a key role in the UK’s transformation to a low-carbon economy and ahead of the general election a number of groups including Friends of the Earth and Community Energy England are calling all political parties to encourage communities and small businesses to invest in clean energy.

‘Powering Up North’

In order to examine these issues and challenges and explore how we can encourage and capitalise on the fast paced growth of the community energy sector, the ‘Powering Up North’ Community Energy Conference brought together over 200 representatives of community energy groups, local authorities, the third sector, central government and other public bodies from across the UK. 

Powering Up North Event, Manchester

A review of key messages from the conference as well as examples of community energy success stories is provided below:

We need a community energy revolution

Ed Gillespie of Futerra opened the event casting back to Ed Davey’s speech in 2013 calling for a “community energy revolution moving from the Big Six suppliers to the Big 60,000” and reminding delegates about the multiple benefits of community energy which “is really about putting people back at the heart of the system – it’s about social change, its about control and a sense of urgency.”

The local and global context

This was followed by Anna Watson, Friends of the Earth and Amy Cameron, 10:10 on the local, national and international significance of community energy.  There has been a massive growth worldwide of community energy generation and the cost of producing renewable energy has dropped significantly.  To deliver a low carbon future requires local practical action, such as the 10:10 Solar Schools Project, getting the community involved and providing an entry point for local people to invest.

Where to find funding

Further speakers from Pure Leapfrog, Pier 11 C.I.C, ResPublica, Carbon Co-op, Charity Bank and OFGEM then reported on the importance and opportunity of community energy, levering investment and empowering the local community to generate power. Partnerships can bring about real social impact through social investment and funding opportunities exist through the Social Stock Exchange, [community funds], community share offers as well as the banks, including Charity Bank. 

Community energy addresses social and economic problems and provides a sustainable way out of poverty.  Local authorities are moving into energy generation creating real devolved power and OFGEM has recently published a discussion paper about the transformation of the energy market.  Reducing the demand for energy through retrofit programmes in Manchester and the North West also provides for a sustainable future.

Community energy success stories

This was followed by a session reviewing the challenges, support and success around the UK featuring nine Pecha Kucha style presentations.  Becky Willis, provided a realistic overview of the challenges faced by community energy and explained how a number of projects have been helped to get off the ground through the Co-operatives UK Energy Mentoring Scheme. 

We then heard from a number of success stories including Halton Lune Hydro, which is the biggest community hydro scheme in England, having already raised £1,425,535 from two share offers.  From three share offers totaling £180,000 Morecambe Bay Community Renewables have installed 89 kW PV at Lancaster Cohousing, 20kW biomass boiler at Horton Women’s Holiday Centre and 10kW PV plus solar thermal at Lancaster Boys & Girls Club.   Chase Solar have recently reached their share offer target of £750,000 which will help deliver and provide free electricity for up to 300 social housing tenants. 

Sheffield Renewables are also working on community solar schemes and by December 2014, the first of their two schemes had generated over 30,000 kWh of electricity.  Holmfirth Transition Town are looking to replace an existing wind turbine with a new 400kW turbine to be owned by the community.  Between February and October 2014, Plymouth Community Energy had installed a combined total of 0.8MW of solar PV on 21 schools and community buildings increasing Plymouth’s PV generation by 6% in just one year.

Challenging the status quo

After lunch we heard about the findings of the ‘Distributing Power, a transition to a civic energy future’ project which is being delivered by a consortium of universities working together to present new financing models that challenge the big six energy companies.

We can all become a participant in the energy market, not just a consumer

Alan Simpson gave the keynote speech ‘Is this North ready for our energy future?’ and told delegates that technology is transforming the politics of energy where “the benefits aren’t just shared by investors but they are shared by consumers - the right of local supply is fundamental to an inclusive movement that will genuinely transform the energy sector for the poor as well as those who have savings to be energy producers.“

Sharing expertise and best practice

A programme of breakout sessions then provided the opportunity to share ideas and capture the extensive knowledge from people involved in this sector and to work towards finding solutions to the barriers they face.  

It's time community energy made an impact

In concluding, Ed Gillespie summarised key messages from the day, highlighting that there is a “gathering of so much accumulated evidence, expertise and experience” and that “this is finally coming to a maturity and we have a chance to make a real difference”.  Anna Watson from Friends of the Earth closed the event with an important reminder for delegates that “you are part of a global movement of people that is demanding access to energy and this year is really important with lots of opportunities to come together with communities from across the world.”

Further information

The conference was organised by a core team, including Friends of the Earth, Community Energy England, 10:10, GMCVO, CLASP, Manchester: A Certain Future, Greater Manchester Community Renewables and My Green Investment CIC.

The power point presentations can be found here 

The audio of the plenary sessions can be found here


Case studies - Community Energy in Greater Manchester

As well as the case studies featured as part of the ‘Powering Up North’ Community Energy Conference there are already some great examples across Greater Manchester demonstrating how good community energy schemes can work.

Stockport Hydro is a renewable energy scheme at Otterspool Weir on the river Goyt near Marple, which is Greater Manchester's first community-owned hydro-electric project. They have been fully up and running since October 2012, and so far have produced just over 404,000 kWh of electricity in under two years of operation.

Bury Community Hydro are also working to establish a hydro energy project using an existing river weir on the River Irwell.  Renewable electricity will be produced from the hydro turbine with all profits used to fund low carbon projects in the Bury area.  They are now carrying out a pioneer share offer, which was launched at the Powering Up North Conference.

‘Generating Success’ is a community renewables programme helping to develop four ‘Trailblazer’ projects around Greater Manchester including Affetside Millennium Green Trust, Bury, Ellenroad Engine House, Rochdale, Millgate Arts Centre, Oldham and Moss Brook Growers, Wigan.  The 18-month project, which began in spring 2012 is being led by GMCVO’s Community Hubs team, in collaboration with Carbon Co-op and MERCi. 

Greater Manchester Community Renewables Limited (GMCR) is a community benefit society that has recently been set up by volunteers to invest in solar panels, funded through a community share issue.  GMCR are looking to work in partnership with building owners such as schools, community centres and businesses that have a good sized roof, and in the autumn will be inviting members of the community to subscribe for shares. 

Keep an eye out for their new website, follow them on Twitter  and Facebook at  or email  if you want to find out more about the project and how you can become involved.


Main image from Flickr user Brian Rogers published here under a Creative Commons Licence