I recently attended a workshop on Future Models for Community Energy hosted by Community Energy England and Power To Change.

There are a number of successful community energy cooperatives in the West Midlands, that receive little or no recognition for their work on community-owned renewable energy generation.

It’s clear that there are a number of opportunities for community energy to scale up. These include the proposed Green New Deal; large scale solar farms; renewable heat in buildings; energy storage in larger buildings; earning an income for communities by aggregating community-owned energy generation and storage together in a way that will enable District Network Operators to deliver smart electricity grids; and district heating.

To achieve any of this means that we will need to scale up significantly from our current levels of activity.  This will involve additional regulatory risks. It will also involve partnerships with sections of private sector who really get low carbon energy – such as some of the newer energy suppliers.  It also means we will need to prove our social and economic impact to new people who are not currently engaged with community energy. We can’t assume that just because we are constituted as Community Benefit Societies that everyone will accept that there is genuine economic and social benefit to communities from what we do. We need to prove it, as Oxford Low Carbon Hub have done.  Community Energy England are developing a toolkit to enable other cooperatives to do so.

All this points to the need to professionalise the community energy sector, and move away from an unsustainable burden on volunteers. Community Energy South has 15 people working full-time in community energy, Oxford Low Carbon Hub has similar numbers.  We’re not the only section of the cooperative sector to face this dilemma. Credit unions face the same issues – those credit unions who employ staff are surviving because they are better able to cope with the regulatory and other risks – those that rely on volunteers are closing down in large numbers.

The community energy sector needs to change, and fast. If we don’t we could be doomed to irrelevance.

Phil Beardmore is a director of Localise West Midlands.