At Prime Minister’s Questions today Brighton MP Caroline Lucas invited David Cameron to visit Brighton Energy Coop and see what clean, affordable energy generation really looks like.

We’d like to second that (we’re a hospitable bunch): you’d be most welcome, Mr Cameron. You could have a look at our growing portfolio of renewable projects, and I’m sure you’d be excited to discuss how we have achieved all our projects via more than £500,000 of community investment – in just a year and a half.

While you’re here, Mr C, let’s talk about the Community Energy Strategy (CES), which lays out the coalition’s plans for supporting community energy and was launched yesterday. The headlines around the CES have been dominated by the new £10m fund for community groups to develop new projects, which we welcome. It’s an interesting read, and I make a few points below that might be of interest.

Meanwhile, David (may I call you David?) you should really visit our sunny city to understand what a locally-owned, green energy system will be. It’s a far cry from your government’s Quixote-esque attempts to promote fracking, to which – in case you missed it – the Environment Agency yesterday dealt a hammer blow, by insisting any frackers demonstrate how they will remove radioactivity from flowback water. The issue for the frackers and their boosters is that they can’t clean up this water: no-one’s sure it’s technically do-able, let alone financially viable. See here for the relevant clip, or here to watch the whole BBC programme on it.

Instead, you should put your weight behind community energy, a far better-supported way of generating our energy, easier to implement, and more cost-effective.

To this end the CES makes some bold moves (1/ – see below) and raises some key questions to which no solutions are provided (2/ and 3/ below). These need to be addressed, and not just talked about:

1/ The £10m grant funding for communities to kick off the energy coop process is great news: not only does it give support at this critical time in an energy coop’s life (the beginning, therefore the most risky and the most difficult to fund), but it also offers the possibility of a loan at a similarly risky time: planning. While Brighton Energy Coop has only developed solar to date (and so hasn’t had to take a wind turbine, for example, through the planning process) I have some sympathy with other coops who have gone through this nervy, risky 6-month-or-more process with their keenest supporters’ cash at risk all the while. So this loan is good news.

2/ A huge issue is how community energy producers can sell their electricity to their members, and to the wider public. At present the system to do this is byzantine, and very expensive. This must change. If renewable energy generators could sell their product on the open market, it would remove the need for subsidies. It’s perverse that renewables are reliant on subsidy because they are blocked from the wider market. Set us free, Mr Cameron!

3/ Thirdly: finance. Community Energy is going to be big. Really big. But to do that we need to be able to raise money through both selling shares and through reasonable borrowing. For that we need long-term (20-year) debt, at rates of between 5 and 7%. Most of the cash currently available is short term, which means that our shareholders don’t get anything for the period of the loan. Not good enough. Renewable energy is an investment in the long term, and its financing needs to reflect that.

We don’t need more of fossil fuels, Mr Cameron, that’s what got us into this climate mess in the first place. We need more of this clean, green stuff – and a widely dispersed network of locally-owned generation is the key to bringing this to fruition. So we extend a warm invitation to visit us, Mr Cameron: come on down to Brighton and let’s have a chat.

Will Cottrell

Brighton Energy Coop

Join Brighton Energy Coop here

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