The public sector is being urged to buy renewable energy directly from Welsh communities. The call comes from the umbrella organisation, Ynni Cymunedol Cymru/Community Energy Wales, which has launched its first ‘State of the Sector’ report.

In Wales, the public sector has a target to reach net-zero carbon by 2030, while the Welsh Government has set a local ownership target of 1GW by 2030.

However, many local authorities and public bodies are yet to make significant progress towards this goal. Community Energy Wales says the nation’s locally-owned projects are uniquely placed to help reach these targets, whilst keeping social issues and cohesion at the heart of the energy transition.

The organisation is encouraging various public sector bodies to buy and invest in energy which has been generated locally.

Established in 2012, Community Energy Wales is a membership organisation which supports various energy projects around the country, all of which are run by local communities.

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Business development manager Rob Proctor said: “The buying power of the public sector in Wales is pretty mighty. We spend an awful lot of money on an awful lot of things via the public sector here, and looking at how can we use that spend to support community-owned initiatives is a great idea.

The National Wales: The directors of Cwm Arian Renewable Energy The directors of Cwm Arian Renewable Energy

“The public sector in Wales has already committed to buying 100 per cent renewable energy so we are very keen to encourage it to buy community-generated energy.

“That is something that could help to stimulate that market as well as help to reach Welsh Government targets. Not only that but it would create jobs, which would also generate income for communities and stimulate the small-scale renewable market in Wales. So all in all, I think it could be a massive benefit to the Welsh economy at a relatively low cost to the public sector”.

For the past decade or so, communities across Wales have set up and managed their own solar panels, wind turbines and hydro systems, and they continue to share the benefits gained from them.

The ‘State of the Sector’ report has identified 60 active organisations across the nation, the highest number of community energy groups per person in the UK.

Understandably, the pandemic has brought various challenges. However, local energy organisations responded throughout 2020 by delivering social benefits, as well as continuing to deliver new energy projects.

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Wales reported the greatest increase in electricity generation capacity in 2020, with an additional 4.25MW commissioned compared to 0.18MW in Scotland and 3.8MW in England. Roughly speaking, one megawatt can power 550 homes using an average amount of electricity.

“The lack of opportunity to meet up was one of the most challenging aspects for our members,” says Mr Proctor. “One of the many benefits of working as a volunteer within your own community is the social interaction it brings and the chance to work together. So the pandemic made it very difficult because people were isolated from each other.

“In spite of that though, what’s been great is that power has still been generated throughout Wales. The solar panels, turbines and hydros have continued to operate during the pandemic and that has continued to create income streams for communities.

“On top of that, what a number of places in Wales were able to do was to use that income to support their communities during Covid-19. In some places, it meant financial support such as providing money to local foodbanks. But it also meant practical support.

“For example, one of our members had a community electric car so during the pandemic it was difficult for it to be used for the car club due to social distancing restrictions.

"So what they did instead was to use it to collect and deliver prescriptions and food parcels to vulnerable people. We continue to see that type of innovation and adaptive thinking to this day.

“What that demonstrates is the importance of having resilient communities in Wales that are able to respond to whatever crises come their way.

“Ultimately, it’s all about putting the control in the hands of people and their local areas. If you own a community asset and it generates an income for you, that puts control back into your local district.”

One of the other big challenges faced by the community energy sector has been the removal of the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT), a UK Government programme designed to promote the uptake of renewable and low-carbon electricity generation technologies. Payments were made to individuals or organisations generating their own electricity, a scheme which has now come to an end.

“The removal of the FITs have had a massive effect,” explains Mr Proctor. “It’s really hit small-scale renewable energy generation, which is the level that most community energy projects are at.

“However, the good news is that renewable energy no longer needs any form of subsidy to be viable. Renewable energy is actually the cheapest form of new energy.

The National Wales: Rob Proctor, Business Development Manager, Community Energy WalesRob Proctor, Business Development Manager, Community Energy Wales

“The challenge for the community energy sector is the fact that, generally speaking, those big energy cost savings come at scale. Most community energy schemes are smaller projects which means that, unfortunately, the economics don’t quite add up for a micro-scale scheme to be financially viable without any form of subsidies.

“The challenge now for the sector is that you’re having to take on very large commercial-scale projects but the amount of time and resources is much more significant so it’s harder for groups to get involved in that.”

Despite the lack of UK strategic, financial and political support, the early adopters and communities that have been working on energy generation for years remain determined.

The newest community wind project was launched at Prouts Park in East Williamston near Saundersfoot in Pembrokeshire last year. The wind turbine established by Community Energy Pembrokeshire began running in March 2020 and generates 900kW of power.

Community Energy Wales says it is also seeing an increase in interest from parish and town councils, and other community organisations, who want to deliver energy projects locally.

In total, six organisations installed renewable energy projects in 2020, compared with four in 2019. There are plenty more projects in the pipeline across the country.

Having installed a 900kW wind turbine in Carmarthenshire, the community co-operative group Ynni Teg is now working on a number of other projects across Wales including a 30MW solar farm in Flintshire, which will become the largest community-owned energy site in the UK.

Working with Swansea, Newport and Pembrokeshire councils, Egni Co-op has been responsible for the largest roll-out of rooftop solar in Wales. The group’s solar panels can be seen on school buildings, leisure centres and even the Geraint Thomas National Velodrome in Newport. With a capacity of 4.3MW, it is also the largest rooftop solar co-operative in the UK.

Meanwhile, Gower Power has set up a scheme to not only generate energy but to sell it locally too. Last year, it attached 228kW storage to its existing solar farm in Dyfnant and started a local supply partnership with Ecotricity. This enables homes and businesses to use electricity produced and stored nearby.

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Rob Proctor hopes that the various innovations happening across Wales will help to raise awareness of the sector and that this will encourage more people to start groups in their own communities: “What we’re showing is that we can actually deliver at scale.

"To continue to do that though, we need investment. We need resources and professional teams to be able to deliver these projects in the future. If we want to see the sector growing then we need to enable them to compete against the larger energy companies.

“Many community energy projects are now starting to branch out and they’re not just working on renewable energy generation. We are currently working to try to develop a network of community car clubs across Wales.

"There are a number of groups with electric cars already and we’re predicting that this will be an area of growth in the next few years.

“Another area seeing growth is energy efficiency. Various local organisations are currently trying to work out how they can improve the energy efficiency of homes. And we hope that this will help to address issues such as fuel poverty.

“Ultimately, we’re part of the movement which is keen to develop community assets. Land is obviously an asset, alongside buildings for example. Access to land is one of the biggest challenges we have to overcome. You need that in order to be able to develop projects.

“The overarching question is - how do we empower communities? We have a climate and ecological emergency that we’re facing and governments everywhere are really struggling to get a grip on it all.

“Communities are leading the way in developing innovative responses, and actually, they always have done. Giving them more control can only be a good thing.”

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