Building back better: What role UK communities can play in delivering net-zero


Anda Baumerte, sustainability manager at Northern Powergrid discusses the role community energy projects can play in helping the UK to achieve its net-zero goal.

COVID-19 has highlighted the important role communities play in our sense of wellbeing and security. However, they have perhaps an even bigger role to play in tackling our other great challenge – climate change.

Community energy projects already generate more than 160MW of electricity, enough to supply 60,000 UK homes with renewable energy, according to Community Energy England.

But its positive impacts extend well beyond a cleaner energy system – it delivers the social, environmental, and economic benefits vital to a fair and inclusive energy transition. Distribution network operators (DNOs) are uniquely placed to support community energy, build on the momentum of the togetherness that’s been necessitated by COVID-19, and ‘Build Back Better’ once the pandemic has passed.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the world as we know it, but as with any crisis, it has also highlighted our best examples of endurance, ingenuity, and togetherness. Just a few months ago, few would have expected that renewables could contribute to over 40% of our energy mix without significant disruption.

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Now, as a result of changes to energy demand and our ability to flex our electricity network, renewables are reaching well beyond that and hitting new records. The UK grid achieved a carbon intensity below 50 gCO2/kWh over the recent Spring bank holiday weekend – the lowest on record, according to the National Grid.

These changes demonstrate that a renewables-led energy system is within reach and that communities can be the driving force that delivers it while protecting our prosperity and wellbeing – a unique opportunity to ‘Build Back Better’ during the recovery. Without the support for clean, local energy solutions, we risk going back to business as usual and ignoring the lessons from COVID-19 that could help accelerate the transition to net zero carbon emissions.

DNOs have an important responsibility to support community energy projects across the UK – something that’s keenly felt at Northern Powergrid as we have more than 20 such projects within our region. Last week, we published our Community Energy Engagement Strategy, detailing exactly how we plan to foster the growth of this community energy, but the core principles remain the same across all DNOs.

Community energy projects are often motivated by the enthusiasm and passion of local people who recognise the economic, social and environmental value that these projects can bring. It is rare that we see community energy projects developed by energy professionals or those familiar with the connections process. As local anchor organisations, DNOs are also perfectly placed to help enable community energy organisations to flourish.

This might be information on where to find financial support, data, useful tools, or even advice on how to build industry relationships. We were the first DNO to launch a fund to support community energy and, since 2015, financed projects which have reached over 5,000 people. In 2018, we merged our fund with Northern Gas Networks to maximise the benefits available to the communities in our region. Recognising the extraordinary situation we are in, we have now repurposed the fund to help vulnerable customers in our region.

Our proactive engagement has found that most community energy organisations simply need advice on complex issues such as connections. Ensuring they have a key point of contact to pose these questions to is perhaps the simplest but most effective way to meet this challenge. Holding regular customer surgeries and having our contact details publicly available are two straight-forward ways to meet this need. Feedback from meetings and events can then also go on to inform and enhance further work.

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Our vision set out in our Distribution System Operator (DSO) plan, is for a smart, flexible, and clean energy system, where a mix of sustainable sources provides electricity. In this world, the system works to utilise every unit of low-carbon energy in the best way and enables communities and individuals to provide power back to the grid, or take it from locally generated, sustainable sources. We are determined to help make this a reality and recognise that we already play a central role in enabling a low-carbon energy system, connecting people to locally generated wind and solar power across our region.

Recognising the importance of data and digital tools to explore the future pathways, we also launched our Distribution Future Energy Scenarios (DFES) last year. The online portal takes an open data approach and uses a visualisation tool to explore what the decarbonisation pathways for our region might look like and exposes the scale of change needed. These are just some examples of the type of work all DNOs are delivering to support the growth of local, low-carbon energy.

However, we can’t afford to become complacent. Only by working together with our communities can we deliver the best possible outcomes for all our customers. Communities are the key to unlocking a fair and inclusive transition to net zero emissions and COVID-19 has taught us that they are capable of mobilising in the face of great challenges. As DNOs, we must play our part in providing the tools and expertise to help them achieve our collective ambition.