Barriers for community energy

Kate Ruddock Kate Ruddock highlights the capacity and connection barriers faced by communities which seek to develop renewables projects.

Community and shared ownership of renewable energy developments is well established across most of Europe. Communities create projects where they own and are actively involved in running a local energy resource – a wind farm, solar panels on local buildings, district heating systems or collective insulation projects – developments by the people, for the people. The Scots are over half-way to achieving their target of having 500 MW of community and locally owned renewable energy, Danish citizens own 70-80 per cent of all wind turbines, and 1.5 million Germans generate electricity on their roofs.

In Ireland, while we have a handful of excellent community energy projects there is huge potential yet to be realised. The locally owned Templederry wind farm in Tipperary and the Drumlin Energy Co-operative with four sites in Northern Ireland are both examples of the potential within our communities to generate renewable energy with collective local ownership and shared local benefits. The Aran Islands Energy Co-operative is well on its way to achieving its aims to develop the islands as energy independent and carbon-neutral by 2022. Their achievements in energy efficiency, retrofit and awareness-raising led them to be winners of the 2014 Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s Sustainable Energy Award. Enthusiasm from communities across the country to engage with energy policy and energy generation has never been greater.

However, when it comes to renewable electricity generation, there are some quite significant barriers that are preventing the community energy sector from reaching its full potential. Despite the Single Electricity Market, conditions north and south of the border couldn’t be more different. Whilst in both regions grid capacity is restricting new developments, the ability to access the remaining capacity is where the most notable differences are seen.

In the Republic of Ireland, whilst capacity may exist, accessing a connection is almost impossible. Speculation on the grid over the past 15 years has meant that there are connections offers outstanding to developers which effectively render the grid full. However as a significant number of these connection offers are held by developers without planning permission and no intention to develop a project, it is clear there is physical capacity available in places. Meanwhile for a community wishing to connect a local energy project into the grid in their local area, it is a gamble whether they will be able to get a connection offer at a price that is affordable and it is guaranteed that they will be waiting in excess of 10 years for any clarity on whether or not they will ever get connected.

Similarly, when it comes to getting paid for generating renewable electricity, the absence of a payment for solar electricity or for any micro-generation technologies in the Republic, makes the economics of small scale developments very challenging.

In Northern Ireland, capacity in rural areas is severely constrained. However, where capacity does exists, connection offers can be achieved within months at a reasonable price. As a result, urban areas have become very attractive locations to develop renewables. This coupled with guaranteed payments for micro-generation and all renewable technologies has resulted in significant investment in urban renewable generation, particularly solar and combined heat and power in recent times.

Active participation and ownership of renewable energy resources by citizens and communities has been a game changer for renewables across Europe. As the proposed roll-out of grid infrastructure upgrades proceeds across the country, it is imperative that the rights of communities to access this infrastructure in their local areas are established.

Kate Ruddock is Policy and Campaigns Manager with Friends of the Earth Ireland.

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