Communities in Charge: How Community Groups are Working to Achieve Net Zero

With the UK Government’s commitment to slash carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, communities across the United Kingdom have increasingly been playing a more prominent role in moving towards a clean energy future. Community-led action can tackle challenging issues around energy, with community groups and local authorities well-placed to understand their local areas and to bring people together around a common purpose.

While the shift to community-led action on climate change will require policy change and support from government, local businesses, community renewable groups and local authorities are already leading the charge on climate action. Here we look at some of the ways communities are tackling the climate dilemma, some community-led projects and their progress to date.

Zero Emission Vehicles

The transport sector is currently the greatest contributor to greenhouse emissions with road transport responsible for the largest share at over a quarter of UK emissions. Decarbonising the transport sector and supporting the uptake of electric vehicles remains one of the key priorities in the Government’s Road to Zero action plan. To achieve a Net Zero carbon transport sector, local communities have been getting involved in a big way, laying the foundations for electrified transport with the rollout of rapid car charging at key sites in cities and roads around the country. Some community groups have even trialed electric car sharing initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and increase the sharing economy – an approach that will be key in fighting climate change.

In 2006, a group of Brighton locals got together in a pub to discuss ideas for a community-led affordable, sustainable alternative bus service in the area – an idea that would later become the much beloved Big Lemon Bus. Starting in 2007 with buses running on waste cooking oil from local pubs and restaurants, The Big Lemon launched the first electric solar powered bus service network in the UK in 2017. It’s goal to bring zero-emission, community powered and affordable public transport to everyone remains the company’s driving force. The social enterprise model allows it to focus on its purpose and with more than 500 local investors, the support of the community has been key to its success. In 2021, The Big Lemon announced plans to increase its electric buses from 9 to 16 – facilitating over 1,000 extra passengers per day to travel sustainably around the city.

Big Lemon Bus

Several councils, such as the Go Ultra Low Cities, have led the way in developing comprehensive Electric Vehicle strategies, contributing to the approximately 1,000 electric buses and more than 20,000 public electric vehicle charging points now on our roads. And whilst most councils are going all in with their electric vehicle strategies, some are running trials of alternative fuels such as hydrogen and biogas with the aim of dramatically reducing consumption and pollution and improving air quality for their communities. Nottingham City Council has deployed 120 biogas-powered buses that emit a staggering 84% less greenhouse gasses than their diesel-powered counterparts. Aberdeen City Council launched the world’s first fleet of double decker hydrogen buses in January 2021. The hydrogen buses save an estimated one kilogram of CO2 per kilometer they drive according to the Council and like electric buses they are virtually silent too.

Community Renewables  

The number of renewable energy projects owned wholly or partly by local community groups in the UK has risen dramatically over the past decade. With public concern for climate change at an all-time high, many community groups are taking action by getting involved with renewable energy schemes and transport initiatives. In Scotland alone, approximately 731 MW of community and locally owned renewable energy capacity was operational as of June 2019, the majority of which was from wind turbines (325 MW), followed by biomass (193 MW).

Well-known for its extended daylight hours in the summer, and with some of the strongest wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe, Orkney’s 2014 renewable energy production was 104% of its own needs. The biggest challenge facing Orkney’s over-production of energy is a lack of capacity on the existing grid connection to the mainland – and with a moratorium in place since 2012 from Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) on new grid connections – further investment and development in renewable energy generation has all but stalled. That was until the local community came up with a solution to turn these challenges into opportunities.

Surf N Turf

On the island of Eday, community renewable energy project Surf n’ Turf is bringing together renewable energy from tidal resources and locally curtailed wind energy to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen produced is then transported and converted back to electricity for use as an auxiliary power source for the inter-island ferries when docked in the harbour. The project is also developing a training programme with a view to green hydrogen eventually being used as a fuel source on the inter-island ferries themselves.

Successful community renewable projects can be found across the whole of the UK. The Bristol Energy Cooperative (BEC)  is another example of a community-led group that allows citizens to invest and become shareholders in local energy projects. Since 2011, BEC have developed numerous clean energy generation projects around Bristol and are currently generating enough energy to power 3,000 homes.

Whilst the recent closure of the Feed-in Tariff caused dismay amongst many community energy groups, the new incentive-based Smart Export Guarantee scheme as well as increased government funding, is expected to bring exponential growth in this sector.

Energy Storage

If the UK is to reach its ambitious Net Zero targets, domestic capacity for energy storage and other assets that enable flexibility will need to grow dramatically. Storage technologies can not only make a zero-carbon electricity system a reality faster, but they can also help it come at a lower cost for consumers. They can reduce the need to curtail, or shut down, excess wind or solar output and avoid costly and often time-consuming grid upgrades. In 2020, planning law in the UK allowing energy storage projects over 50MW officially changed, allowing much bigger projects to be deployed without going through the national planning process. This is good news for local communities looking to reap the benefits of energy storage, and there’s already some pioneering projects underway.

The largest community energy battery in Europe has been installed at the Trent Basin project in Nottingham. The community battery can store 2.1MWh of energy and deliver 500kW of power, and its inclusion at the pioneering development represents a significant leap forward in the use of renewable energy in housing projects across the UK. The battery not only stores and distributes renewable energy, but it is also connected to the National Grid. It can buy electricity from the Grid when costs are low and sell that on to the residents for reduced prices. Excess energy can then be sold back to the Grid with profits shared amongst the community to further offset bills. 

Trent Basin

Local Councils have also been looking to energy storage to help accelerate their decarbonisation plans.  Not far from Trent Basin, Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC) have been working with Cheesecake Energy Ltd (CEL) on a pilot project that will see CEL’s eTanker storage system installed at NCC’s largest vehicle depot in Bilsthorpe, Nottingham. eTanker will minimise the cost and disruption of grid connection upgrades and capture solar generation that would otherwise be exported to the grid, reducing the depot’s carbon footprint and energy costs.

Local authorities and community energy groups can help to drastically reduce our carbon emissions to reach Net Zero. Beyond the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, there are many benefits for the communities involved including:

  • The creation of green jobs and providing a ‘Just Transition’ for local workers
  • Reducing energy bills and saving money for the people involved in the community energy project, from households to businesses
  • Increasing energy awareness, creating a connection between the community and their renewable energy project so they feel empowered
  • Providing income to fund local projects to improve lives for residents

Cheesecake Energy is working with a number of local councils and community energy groups to help optimise their energy use and achieve their decarbonisation goals. Get in touch with us today to discuss your project.

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