Power to the People – is community energy the way forward?

The Government wants us to become ‘energy citizens’, but advocates of local energy schemes say Ireland is lagging behind other EU countries

Last month, as world leaders met in Paris at COP21, the United Nations climate-change summit, more than 100 Irish community groups, co-operatives, energy agencies and nongovernment organisations signed the Community Energy Proclamation.

“Imagine a community putting its hands up and deciding to build a wind farm,” its organisers said. “Imagine all the schools in a town running on clean, free solar electricity.” Encouraging communities to move to clean energy through projects like these is the best way to unlock Ireland’s renewable-energy potential, according to the groups that put the proclamation together.

“The 100 signatories represent thousands of people. A lot of people see the climate challenge as serious and want to respond to it in their communities,” says Kate Ruddock of Friends of the Earth, one of the organisations that signed up. The proclamation envisions Ireland as a nation of “energy citizens” who will plan, generate and distribute energy for the benefit of their communities.

This is also what the Government says it wants, according to Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030, a White Paper that Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Alex White published the week after the signing of the energy proclamation.

“The need for change to our energy system is absolute. The deregulation of the electricity sector has led to the private ownership of new energy infrastructure. The debate on fossil fuels is now over, and in the transition to clean-energy production we need to engage citizens in the ownership of energy,” says Paul Kenny, chief executive of Tipperary Energy Agency.

Kenny believes that much of the objection to wind farms was really about the transfer of wealth from the community to developers and landowners “who make substantial amounts of money while the wider community doesn’t benefit much at all”.

Templederry Wind Farm

Pat Rabbite opens Templederry WindFarm in 2013

Service to society

Kenny has been to Denmark to see some of the first community wind farms.

“It was interesting to see how community wind energy was born out of a voluntary effort and a move against corporate energy production. The Danish model of co-ownership states that a community must own 20 per cent of wind farms.”

Everybody in Denmark accepts and is engaged by the need to move from a fossil-fuel society, according to Kenny. “That hasn’t happened in Ireland yet,” he says.“We have to ask ourselves: is energy a service to society or a commodity to make money from?”

Kenny believes the ideal is for energy to be created in the local economy and for any surplus to be sold back into the local area as part of a circular economy.

But Ireland has huge issues to overcome before it can accommodate many community-run wind farms or solar-powered schools. Most community energy projects cannot currently access the national electricity grid, for example, sell any surplus electricity they generate or share the electricity they generate with their neighbours.

More fundamentally, they often cannot even get advice on planning permission, on the installation of equipment or on the financing and managing of energy co-operatives.

Kate Ruddock is critical of Ireland’s lack of support for community energy projects. “We have relied on energy from big power plants. In contrast to many European countries, community-owned renewable energy in Ireland is practically nonexistent,” she says. “About 60 per cent of renewable energy is owned by communities in Germany, and Scotland has recently met its target to supply 500 megawatts – about 500,000 homes – with locally owned wind- and hydro-powered projects.

“How is it right that we subsidise peat and gas power plants but there are no payments for solar electricity or for microgeneration of electricity? How is it right that the system supports developers to build wind farms but there is no mechanism for community participation in renewable energy?”

She acknowledges that the White Paper is a step forward. One of its sections, entitled “From Passive Consumers to Active Citizens”, outlines the need for “energy citizens” and “energy communities” to be “agents of change in how we generate, transmit, store, conserve, and use our energy”.

It also says that “the energy system will change from one that is almost exclusively Government and utility led, to one where citizens and communities will increasingly be participants in energy efficiency and in renewable energy generation and distribution”.

New infrastructure

The Government says it will fund and support community-led projects in the initial stages of development, planning and construction; facilitate both access to the national grid and payments for electricity generated by the projects; and develop a framework that allows communities to share in the benefits of any substantial new energy infrastructure in their areas.

“For the first time in Ireland, community energy has become policy, but the implementation of the White Paper on energy is far from clear,” Ruddock says.

Ireland has only one community-owned wind farm, and it took more than 10 years to get it up and running. Templederry Wind Farm, in Co Tipperary, has two turbines that generate up to 4.6 megawatts of electricity. This is then fed into the national grid.

“The way I see it is that each turbine means the money stays in the area and prevents another oil tanker from coming into the country,” says John Fogartyof Templederry Wind Development Company.

Clare Watson, an energy-policy researcher at University College Cork, says that more financial, technical and practical support needs to be made available to initiate, motivate and sustain long-term action for community energy.

“People need to feel that we are all in this together, that we’re part of a national movement, a national energy transition, and that the Government, politicians, policymakers and businesses are doing their part,” she says. “Setting up and supporting community energy groups is only part of the jigsaw.”

Community energy projects in Ireland

Comharchumann Fuinnimh OileainOileáin Arainn, or Aran Islands Renewable Energy (facebook.com/AranIslands energy), is the stand-out community-owned energy project. The winner of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s Sustainable Energy Award in 2014, it aims to have all three Aran Islands energy-independent and carbon-neutral by 2022. Seventy-five per cent of homes on the islands have signed up for insulation upgrades, with 30 per cent already done; 30 residents also reduced transport costs by almost 80 per cent by using eight electric vehicles over three years; and there are plans to supply all three islands with wind-powered electricity. “The community here are very practical people, and they see the benefits of having comfortable homes and cheaper heating bills. We aim to offer people cheaper energy from wind generation, with options to own shares in the turbine and share in the profits,” says Dara Molloy of the project. Longer-term plans include photovoltaic and wave energy. “We want to start new businesses that run on green energy, to strengthen and broaden our economy from tourism and fishing.”

Templederry Wind Farm, in Co Tipperary, is Ireland’s first community-owned wind farm. Located between Nenagh and Thurles, it has two turbines that generate 4.6 megawatts of electricity at maximum capacity.

Claremorris & Western District Energy Co-Op (claremorrisenergy co-op.com) is a community-led district heating project to be fuelled by woodchip from local softwood trees and biogas from local farms. A joint venture with Mayo County Council, the project aims to bring heat to businesses, homes and the local national school. “We are also submitting an application for two community solar farms and will run workshops on biogas generation with an innovation award we won from Gas Networks Ireland,” says JP Prendergast. The co-op also hopes to build a microgrid, so it can supply all its own electricity and heat. Mayo County Council also plans to convert some vehicles to run on biogas.