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Is small and local beautiful – or just token?

The coalition government has talked a lot about decentralisation and supporting small-scale local projects. The preface to DECC’s Microgeneration Strategy consultation says: ‘There will be a role for small-scale electricity producers in homes, schools, offices and factories around the country to complement the substantial new investments needed in large-scale Carbon Capture and Storage, nuclear and renewable electricity such as offshore wind; a new supply of locally-produced power that spreads the risk and can help make us all more self-reliant. And there will be a step-change in the use of renewable micro-technologies such as heat pumps, as we tackle the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions, the heating our homes.’

The deployment of micro-generation options like micro-wind and PV solar, has been left mainly to the small existing ‘Clean Energy Payback’ Feed-In Tariff scheme and, for housing, the ZeroCarbon Hub, an agency the government has commissioned to deal with the issue.

In theory, micro-gen will be picked up as and when building and construction companies get to grips with the governments requirement that all new build houses must be ‘zero net carbon’ by 2016.

However, there is still some uncertainty as to what that actually means. Under pressure for clarification, the Labour administration had indicated that, although the aim was for houses to generate all their own power, some power could still be imported, and the upshot seemed to be that new-build houses were only expected to have to cut emissions by 70%. But now an even more flexible approach seems to have emerged, with only 56%, being required. Evidently, 70% was seen as ‘particularly challenging and may not be achievable in all cases,’ according to the ZeroCarbon Hub. What that means in terms of how much of their net energy they must get from on-site renewables, still remains a little unclear. The Building regulations are also being ‘rationalized’, so it’s all still rather muddy. See:

The same goes for the proposed Renewable Heat Incentive, now delayed until June. But, when it comes into force, it could stimulate solar heating, and the use of biomass and biogas in micro CHP units, plus heat pumps and even fuel cells, at the domestic level.

Although it’s mainly aimed at remedial domestic energy efficiency projects, some micro-gen options may also eventually get some support from the Green Deal, which aims ‘to radically overhaul the energy efficiency of homes and small businesses’ by making energy efficiency affordable for all, whether people own or rent their property’. The details emerged in the Energy Bill in December. The scheme is expected to start in late 2012.

The Green Deal is basically a short-term credit system – money is loaned by participating commercial organisations for upgrades, but paid back continually through a charge on their energy bills. As DECC explains: ‘The upfront finance will be attached to the building’s energy meter. People can pay back over time with the repayments less than the savings on bills, meaning many benefit from day one. It will help save carbon, energy and money off fuel bills.’

DECC added that it’s estimated that there are 14 million insulation measures like loft, cavity and solid wall to be carried out; and that the most energy-inefficient homes could save, on average, around £550 p.a. by installing insulation measures under the deal. When the occupier moves on, not only will a more efficient property be left to the next occupier, the charge will also be left behind.

According to Chris Huhne, the scheme could support 250,000 jobs over the next 20 years, from the projected £7 bn of Green Deal private-sector investment per year, assuming all 26 million households take up the Green Deal.

All the above schemes focus mainly on domestic-scale projects and upgrades. Larger community-scale energy supply projects are the focus other schemes like the Community Sustainable Energy Programme (CSEP) – an £8 m open grants programme, run by the Building Research Establishment as an award partner of the BIG Lottery Fund. The Feed-In Tariff also provides support for local community projects – up to 5 MW. And DECC has a ‘Community Energy Online’ information service.

However, overall, the government does not seem to see community-scale projects as very significant. The new revised National Policy Statement on Energy says: ‘The government does not believe that decentralized and community energy systems are likely to lead to significant replacement of larger-scale infrastructure.’

This despite the fact that an earlier report by the Energy Saving Trust (‘Power in Numbers’) suggested that there were significant economies of scale: ‘Little to no benefit is observed in progressing from individual action, i.e. single household, to the five household level, even after the implementation of additional policy support. It is only when action occurs at scales above 50 households, and ideally at or above the 500 household level, that significant carbon savings become available.’

Community-scale projects could, it says, economically meet 4.3% of total UK energy demands if householders were to act collectively. That’s 13% of total annual UK household energy demands.

Community projects might get some support from the changes that are proposed in the governments new Localism Bill, which gives councils, communities and individuals a greater say in local planning decisions. But equally it might lead to opposition to the adoption of new technologies large and small ‐ some have seen it as a NIMBY’s charter. The bill introduces new rules allowing for local referendums where local people, councillors and councils can instigate a vote on any local issue, including planning proposals; and new powers to allow communities to give planning approval to chosen sites on local land.

It makes sense to use local energy sources to meet local energy needs wherever possible, and there is a lot of enthusiasm for a more decentralised community-based approach, as well as for domestic scale projects. The latter may have it limits, but done properly it can make a useful contribution, not least in alerting householders to their energy use and associated lifestyle energy and eco-issues. Community-scale projects by contrast should also be able to make a much more significant contribution on the supply side, if given proper support. So far though that seems rather patchy. However, Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced recently that the government would look into developing a community energy fund to ensure that new homes built after 2016 are carbon neutral.

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