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ESRC: Rural communities revived by energy 19.07.07

A study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, of community renewable energy projects in Britain has found that so far, projects are largely based in the countryside, some quite remote.

From wind turbines to shared heating systems, small-scale renewable energy doesn’t just help in the fight against climate change. It can also bring people together, revitalise local economies and help alleviate poverty.

Community energy projects generate energy renewably, at a local level. They involve anything from a community-owned wind turbine to a solar panel on a village shop. In recent years, government policy has highlighted the benefits of this kind of distributed, small-scale energy generation, and various national programmes have sprung up to fund and support specific projects.

This study documented more than 500 community energy projects happening in the UK, far more than researchers expected to find. “There is a huge demand for this,” says project leader Professor Gordon Walker. “It’s no longer a question of convincing the public that small scale renewable energy is a good idea. Whenever money is made available it is snapped up immediately, and the funding schemes have been horribly over-subscribed.”

The vast majority of projects are rural. Walker suggests that some renewable technologies, like wind turbines or biomass heating, are more suited to rural areas, where they can provide a new source of income for farmers. Also rural people are less well integrated into energy infrastructure than urbanites. Many villages are off the gas network, and electricity supplies may be unreliable, so there is more drive towards alternative sources of energy.

But perhaps the rural bias reflects stronger communities in rural areas. Some projects have been set up and run by communities, with shared ownership of the technology, like a co-operatively owned 75 kilowatt wind turbine at Bro Dyfi in Wales. Walker says that although there isn’t a clear recipe for success, good projects are often driven forward by strong local enthusiasts, intent on meeting a local need.

Renewable energy seen as a way to enliven rural economies. For example, a project to install a biomass boiler, heating a school and 19 houses in Wales provided a market for local wood, and a new heating system for houses that had had little investment. There were cultural and technological barriers to overcome. It took a lot of negotiation to persuade householders to share their boiler with other buildings. “Even if a technology is tried and tested in other countries, setting it up in Britain can be a whole new learning process,” say Walker. “It’s important that there is support and guidance available, and funding for that learning process.”

Of course, things aren’t always rosy. There can be serious fractures and disagreements within rural communities, as anyone who listens to The Archers will know. Local energy projects can galvanise the conflict. The research documented a case of resistance against three local farmers who won more than £2.5 million of funding to erect a small wind farm.

According to Walker, distributed energy generation could be a much bigger part of our energy network than is imagined at the moment. But the government needs a stronger vision, and must provide longer-term support to get projects off the ground.

Peter Shield

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