Can feed-in tariffs energise the Big Society?

climate change, communities, energy, science and technology, sustainability

Author(s):  Reg Platt
Published date:  14 Sep 2010
Source:  New Start

The feed-in tariff presents a big opportunity for many community and voluntary groups and they would be wise to make the most of it.

Widespread support for communities generating renewable energy exists from the community level up to government and continues to gather pace. However, this support has not yet translated into widespread on the ground action, mainly because the technologies have simply been too expensive. Now, this has changed.

In April this year the government introduced a radical policy instrument called the feed-in tariff, which means households and organisations get paid for generating renewable electricity.

The money earned through the feed-in tariff is index linked, guaranteed for 25 years and offers a 7 to 8 % return on the cost of buying the technologies. On top of this, the electricity generated can be used and/or sold back to the grid making a big difference to the cost of energy bills.

This money could be a rich revenue stream for community groups.

In new research by the Institute for Public Policy Research and British Gas, published alongside the report Green streets: exploring the potential of community energy, we have estimated that solar panels on village halls and community centres could generate around £18 million a year, on pubs around £15m a year, on schools around £41m a year, and on churches and other religious buildings around £10.5m a year.

The report draws on the experiences of fourteen communities undertaking energy projects with funding and technical support from British Gas. One of these communities, a voluntary organisation that runs a Lido in Beccles, Suffolk, has installed solar panels that will generate it an annual windfall of £3000 a year, which will be vital to keeping their finances in shape.

By installing these technologies community groups can not only dramatically improve their finances they could also play a key role in accelerating our response to climate change.

The high visibility of renewable technologies on community buildings could have a major impact on the way people think about and use energy by making the technologies seem more normal, which may lead to a greater uptake in them, and ultimately to greater support for more ambitious, larger scale renewable projects.

However, there are significant barriers to community groups installing renewable technologies and they need to draw in help from and be supported by a range of partners such as local authorities, support providers and technology experts.

Raising the up front costs for the technologies remains the main barrier and beyond this is the need for technical and financial expertise, the capacity for groups to get themselves properly constituted and last, but certainly not least, finding the time to make it all happen.

This all has relevance for the government’s aspirations for a Big Society: there is a thriving community and voluntary sector willing to contribute and make a difference, but they need the right advice, expertise and support, as well as money, to be able to do so.

The feed-in tariff presents a big opportunity for many community and voluntary groups and they would be wise to make the most of it.


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Reg Platt, Senior Research Fellow