Purpose from passion: How UK communities can help deliver net-zero

As we continue to seek new and innovative strategies to 'Build Back Better', Anda Baumerte, Sustainability Manager and Community Energy Contact at Northern Powergrid outlines how with DNO support community energy projects can transform our energy network and play a vital role in the transition to net-zero.

Purpose from passion: How UK communities can help deliver net-zero

Image: Northern Powergrid

Achieving net-zero emissions’ target will require both national and local action from organisations and individuals alike. Community energy projects already generate more than 160MW of electricity, enough to supply 60,000 UK homes with clean renewable energy, according to the latest figures.

But the positive impact of community energy extends well beyond a reduction in emissions, as they deliver immeasurable social, environmental, and economic benefits. At a time when these benefits are needed most, distribution network operators (DNOs) are uniquely placed to support community energy, build on the momentum of the togetherness that’s been necessitated by COVID-19, and ‘Build Back Better’ once the pandemic has passed.

Whilst the pandemic has had a significant impact on our world as we know it, as with any crises, it has also highlighted some of our society’s best examples of endurance, resilience, ingenuity, and togetherness. Just a few months ago, few would have expected that renewables could contribute to over 40% of our energy mix without significant disruption. Now, as a result of changes to energy demand and our ability to flex our electricity network, that’s exactly what has happened. What’s more, from 10 April, the country went its first full month (and counting!) without coal generation. Equally, many of us would have – perhaps reluctantly – admitted to not knowing our neighbours at the start of 2020. Now, we join together every week to clap for carers.

Recognising that a renewables-led energy system is within reach and that communities are an important cornerstone to our prosperity and wellbeing provides us with a unique opportunity to harness those qualities and ‘Build Back Better’ during the recovery. Community energy, as the name suggests, connects the generation or use of clean energy directly to the community that it powers. Without support for clean, local energy solutions, we risk going back to business as usual and ignoring the lessons from COVID-19 that could help accelerate the transition to net-zero carbon emissions.

DNOs have an important responsibility to support community energy projects across the UK – something that’s keenly felt at Northern Powergrid as we have more than 20 such projects within our region. Last week, we published our Community Energy Engagement Strategy, detailing exactly how we plan to foster the growth of this community energy, but the core principles remain the same across all DNOs.

Community energy projects are often motivated by the enthusiasm and passion of local people who recognise the economic, social and environmental value that these projects can bring. It is rare that we see community energy projects developed by energy professionals or those familiar with the connections process. As local anchor organisations, DNOs are also perfectly placed to provide a number of resources that help enable community energy organisations to flourish.

This might be information on where to find financial support, data, useful tools, or even advice on how to build industry relationships. We were the first DNO to launch a fund to support community energy and, since 2015, financed projects which have reached over 5,000 people. In 2018, we merged our fund with Northern Gas Networks to maximise the benefits available to the communities in our region. Recognising the extraordinary situation we are in, we have now focused on the immediate priorities and repurposed the fund to help vulnerable customers in our region.

Our proactive engagement has found that most community energy organisations simply need advice on complex issues such as connections. Ensuring they have a key point of contact to pose these questions to is perhaps the simplest but most effective way to meet this challenge. Holding regular customer surgeries and having our contact details publicly available are two straight-forward ways to meet this need. Feedback from meetings and events can then also go on to inform and enhance further work.

Recognising the importance of data and digital tools, we have also launched two new online tools this year. Our Distribution Future Energy Scenarios (DFES) takes an open data approach and uses a visualisation tool to explore what the decarbonisation pathways for our region might look like and exposes the scale of change needed. Our free AutoDesign tool enables anyone to access indicative costs for new connections, within minutes instead of days, and provides greater transparency about network capacity to enable informed decisions about where to connect.

These are just some examples of the type of work all DNOs are delivering to support the growth of local, low-carbon energy. However, we find ourselves at a critical point. Supporting community projects through and beyond COVID-19 will require us to double-down our efforts. Community energy is not just an invaluable way to reach the most vulnerable in society, it is also critical to our transition to distribution system operators (DSOs) and, importantly, to achieving net-zero carbon emissions for the UK. Ultimately, only by working together with our communities, can we deliver the best possible outcomes for all our customers.

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