Energy and Climate ChangeWritten evidence submitted by Gill Seyfang and Adrian Smith

UK Community Energy Survey: Key Findings

(i)Community energy is a diverse sector, with a wide variety of different types of organisations involved, from local climate change groups to churches, local authorities and allotment groups.

(ii)The sector is principally instigated by civil society activists and groups: 93% were set up by individuals or pre-existing community groups.

(iii)Two-thirds are formally constituted (necessary for funding and tax purposes), while a third are operating as informal associations.

(iv)Geography matters: nine out of ten describe themselves as “communities of place” rather than “interest”.

(v)Three quarters of the UK’s projects are in England, and two-thirds are rurally-located.

(vi)Groups have a wide variety of objectives and motivations in addition to sustainability, including community development, tackling fuel poverty, promoting local resilience, or simply improving a community building.

(vii)Two-thirds of groups are working on both supply-side and demand-side measures for sustainable energy.

(viii)The most common energy generation technology is photovoltaic (PV) electricity. The most widely-used energy conservation/efficiency measures were raising awareness through newsletters, public meetings and demonstrations.

(ix)Three-quarters of the groups felt they were successfully achieving their objectives, and the same proportion felt their projects would be successful.

(x)Half the groups planned to go on to try other sustainable energy projects in the future.

(xi)Networking is a significant activity: three-quarters were involved in networking with other community enegry groups, networks or other intermediary organisations.

(xii)Community energy projects give and receive help to other projects, 80% of which are in their own county.

(xiii)Over half (58%) are involved with national networks or intermediary bodies, and benefit from training, resources, information, advice, lobbying and publicity.

(xiv)The key UK-wide networking bodies for community energy are the Transition Network, Community Energy Scotland, Energy Saving Trust, Low Carbon Communities Network and Energyshare.

(xv)Three-quarters of projects had received grant funding.

(xvi)The sector comprises mainly small and voluntarily-run organisations. Three quarters have 10 or fewer core active members; over two-thirds have no paid staff.

(xvii)A third of the projects have grown over the last year, and over half remained stable.

(xviii)The main success factors reported were: a strong organising group with key skills and commitment; good project management; support from other organisations and an enabling policy context.

(xix)The principal obstacles faced were: lack of resources (time, volunteers, technical expertise); technical issues with the project; changes in government policy; planning and other bureaucratic hurdles, and public disinterest in sustainable energy.

Characteristics of the Community Energy Sector

1. Community energy groups are diverse. A wide variety of different types of community groups are involved with community energy, including local civil society groups focusing on climate change, low carbon activities and general sustainability issues, eg Transition Towns; renewable energy cooperatives, community interest companies and partnerships; related non-energy groups eg local conservation or allotment groups; local branches of national campaigns eg 10:10; groups or organisations who own or manage (or build) community buildings, such as church or faith groups, schools and colleges, village halls, social clubs, social housing; Statutory and non-statutory councils below the district level eg parish or town councils; Community Development Trusts and Community Associations; projects set up by local authorities but mainly run by local communities eg Local Agenda 21 groups; and partnerships with public organisations with relatively strong community leadership.

2. The vast majority (89%) identified themselves as communities of place, rather than communities of interest. There was a wide geographical distribution of projects across the UK (Figure 1). Overall, 75% were located in England, with 18% in Scotland, 4% in Wales, and 3% in Northern Ireland. Almost two thirds of our respondents were rurally located, and a quarter in urban areas.

Community Energy Origins

3. The origins of the groups are very strongly rooted in civil society: well over half (59%) were set up by individuals, and a further third (34%) by pre-existing community groups. This indicates that the community energy sector is predominantly citizen-led and community-based from the outset, and differentiates the sector from top-down community development initiatives which tend to be instigated by local authorities or community development agencies.

4. The number of UK community energy projects has risen rapidly in the last few years: Figure 3 shows the cumulative total of projects by year, revealing a sharp rise from the mid 2000s—79% of the projects were less than five years old (formed 2007–11). The longest-standing project was instigated in 1996, and the groups’ average age is 4.2 years.

5. Indicating the tangible achievements of the sector, and the experiences of our respondents, 61% of our respondents had successfully set up at least one project, and a quarter (25%) were in the middle of setting up their projects, while 10% were at the stage of considering a community energy initiative.

Community Energy Objectives

6. Our survey uncovered a wide range of goals from these community energy projects, and for many, sustainable energy was not the principal goal. From a list of possible options, respondents identified an average of eight objectives per project (see Table 1). The objectives are grouped into broad categories, and overall the main objectives were economic (96% gave these objectives), followed by environmental (88%), social (73%), political (73%) and infrastructural (68%) goals.

7. The most commonly cited single objective was saving money on energy bills (reported by 83% of projects). Other goals given by more than half the respondents were: reducing carbon dioxide emissions (cited by 80%), improving local energy independence (60%), community empowerment (57%).

8. and generating income for the community (52%). Substantial minorities also aimed to improve their local environment, tackle fuel poverty, influence wider sustainability and climate change policies, improve community health and wellbeing, etc.


Community Energy Activities

10. Community energy groups were involved in both supply-side and demand-side activities: 82% reported sustainable energy generation activities, and 86% were working on energy-conservation and efficiency measures. Two thirds (68%) of the groups were engaged in both areas, revealing the holistic and multi-faceted nature of the sector.

11. Turning first to a breakdown of the projects involved in energy generation, we found that projects were using an average of 1.9 renewable technologies each (see Figure 4), and the field was clearly dominated by installations of solar photovoltaic renewable technologies (71%). The next most common types were solar thermal, ground source heat pumps, onshore wind, air source heat pumps, biomass and hydroelectric power. Previous research has highlighted solar thermal as the most common renewable energy technology employed by community energy groups, but it appears that recent policy changes and financial incentives towards solar electricity has shaped the current market for community-based energy initiatives.

12. In contrast, the projects working on energy conservation and efficiency demonstrated a more diverse set of activities, with an average 7.3 measures each (see Figure 5). Among these projects, the two most common initiatives were newsletters (66%) and public meetings (65%), followed by using energy efficient appliances, stalls at events and wall/loft insulation. Many of these activities are concerned with information-provision, adopting an information-deficit approach to behaviour change and energy conservation. Such awareness-raising initiatives are perhaps less tangible and demanding than activities requiring installation of new technologies, or learning new skills, and technological solutions (eg energy monitors, energy auditing, carbon footprinting and thermal imaging) were less popular.

Community Energy Success?

13. Encouragingly, over three quarters of the respondents (75%) felt that they were achieving their objectives quite well or very well, and only 7% felt they were not meeting their aims. Similarly, 77% felt positive that their projects would be successful or very successful, while only 8% felt they would not succeed.

14. Looking forward, of the respondents who had “future plans” in terms of sustainable energy, 52% planned to try out other energy-saving approaches or sustainable energy technologies, and a further 29% planned to expand their existing activities. A fifth (19%) just wanted to focus on consolidating their current activities.

Networking and Partnerships

15. Community energy groups often work in partnership with other organisations, averaging 2.7 partners per project. These partnerships were most prominently with Local Authorities (60%), and other community groups (53%), but also with businesses (36%), schools (29%), NGOs/charities (26%), and national government departments (24%). The majority (88%) of respondent groups were leading their sustainable energy projects within these partnerships, and benefited from the relationship in terms of training, specialist advice, resources and information, funding, etc.

16. Networking is a key activity for the UK’s community energy sector: almost three quarters of our survey respondents (73%) were engaged in some form of networking with other community energy groups and/or with organisations and networks.

17. First, interactions with other community initiatives were significant. Overall, 40% of our sample had received help from other community groups (averaging 1.9 sources of help), and 38% had provided help to other community groups (averaging 2.2 recipients). Networking with other community energy groups within their locality (ie villages, towns, cities) and county is more significant than national or UK-wide project-to-project networking. More than 80% of our respondents’ networking activities (both giving and receiving help) occurred within their own counties. Three community groups stood out as frequently-mentioned providers of help: OVESCO (Ouse Valley Energy Services Company), Low Carbon Oxford North and Low Carbon West Oxford. The kinds of help exchanged between communities included tangible support such as useful contacts, lease documents, grant application forms, equipment and office space; in addition, communities shared ideas and gained inspiration from each other.

18. Second, links with intermediary organisations and national networks were also important. More than half the respondents (58%) reported active networking with such organisations (averaging 2.9 each) as members and/or partners, or as subjects of case studies written by the organisations and receivers of grants or awards. In addition to receiving technical advice, respondents were involved in lobbying, campaigning, networking and various publicity activities through the organisations. Community Action Groups Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire Climate Xchange were the most commonly-named regional (sub-national) organisations.

19. At country-level and UK-wide, a handful of significant network hubs were evident (see Figure 6). The Transition Network was the most commonly named organisation (named by 12 respondents) followed by Community Energy Scotland (11) and the Energy Saving Trust (10). Other key hubs were the Low Carbon Communities Network, Energyshare, the Development Trusts Association Scotland, the Centre for Sustainable Energy, Co-operatives UK, Carbon

20. Leapfrog, Community Powerdown Scotland and Locality. Whilst six of these organisations specialise in sustainable energy, it is notable that community development organisations (eg Transition Network and Development Trusts Association Scotland, Locality), and business associations (eg Cooperatives UK) also played a key role.

21. Figure 6 also shows that communities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland tend to work with organisations based in their own country, whereas communities in England appeared to be engaged with the UK-wide organisations (which tend to be located in England) as well as organisations operating only in England. The over-reliance on country-specific organisations suggests that there is some isolation of community energy groups in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales from organisations whose remit is to support community energy UK-wide. This may reflect greater convenience and better support from local national organisations which are better connected with local policy domains.

Sharing Knowledge and Experience

22. The majority of our respondents (71%) undertook activities to raise their profile and share their experiences, through a variety of channels—the most common activity was gaining publicity through their networks. Face-to-face contact and direct community engagement was also important to community energy projects, and a key element of what they do, indicating that local knowledge and networking is crucial for the success of these projects. However, indirect contacts such as media and websites were more commonly used (79% of those engaged in publicity) than direct person-to-person approaches (28%).

Influencing Policy

23. We explored whether and how the community energy sector was active in trying to influence wider sustainability or climate change policies. Almost half the survey respondents (45%) stated that they were indeed engaging with policy either directly or indirectly. A third of these reported that they did this by being a member of an organisation or network (thereby demonstrating the importance of intermediary organisations for the sector), and a quarter cited involvement in Local Authority planning and development plans, and responding to government consultations or being involved with a government department. Others were lobbying MPs and MEPs, or attending events or campaign meetings in support of sustainability policies.

Scale and Resources

24. We found that a third of our respondents (35%) were operating as informal groups (comprising 20% working independently and 15% working as part of a large formal initiatives or programmes), and two-thirds had a formal group structure (eg charitable incorporated organisation, limited company with a social purpose, community benefit society, etc.). Some indicated that they were in the process of registration or planning to get registered as a group, for funding or tax purposes. This indicates that institutionalisation may be required to achieve the group’s objectives.

25. Two thirds of the community energy groups currently received grant funding (69%), and other significant income sources were from energy generation (34%), and donations (23%). It is noteworthy that many of these income streams are intermittent (eg funding, sales income, sponsorship, prizes) or represent sums that need repaying (eg share offer, loans), and some respondents indicated that they were relying on the generosity of core members and parent organisations. This indicates that groups are demonstrating resilience and adaptability in the face of changing external conditions and opportunity structures.

26. Grant funding is clearly the major source of financial support of these projects, and of the whole sample, 72% had been successful in winning grant funding, while a further 10% had applied but been unsuccessful (this might indicate a bias towards “winners” in our sample, and highlight the need to study more failed projects to understand their struggles). This finding reflects the timing of our survey, and while grant-winners feature heavily in our sample, the future of community energy seems to be moving away from a grant-funded model, towards economically sustainable business models involving revenue-generation (the majority listed income generation as an objective), but success at achieving this source of income is perhaps only starting to be evident.

27. Since these projects are community-based initiatives, we seek to understand their scale in terms of three dimensions of participation: active core members and employees (see Figures 7 and 8). The majority relied on a small number of core active members (73% had ten or fewer committed individuals who spend time, and share their experience, skills and expertise to run their community energy projects), and the sector is mainly run on a voluntary basis (68% had no paid staff). Encouragingly for the sector, a third of the groups (32%) had grown over the last year, and over half (57%) have remained stable.

Community Energy Sector Analysis

28. In order to grasp the range and extent of key factors and issues that have influenced the development of community energy sector, we undertook a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, asking groups to identify the key internal and external factors, which had both positive and negative impacts on their projects (see Table 2).

29. Community energy’s (internal) strengths related mainly to group factors (48% listed these), and in particular, to the qualities of the group such as dedication and commitment, determination, good communication, strong leadership, a good reservoir of skills to draw on, talented individuals and so on. Project-specific strengths tended to relate to the importance of good project management. External success factors (opportunities) were mainly to do with support from other organisations (42% gave this success factor), and a supportive policy context which enabled community energy (30%).

30. Obstacles to be overcome were more straightforward, and were overwhelmingly internal weaknesses of community energy projects: namely, project-related obstacles (reported by 71% of respondents) around a lack of finance, volunteers, expertise, and technical issues. External threats to the community energy projects were reported by 33%, and these covered uncertainties around policy changes, planning and bureaucracy hurdles, but most strikingly, a sense of wider public apathy and lack of interest in community energy (26%).

Table 1


Success Factors




all group factors


Group management, direction



qualities of group



skills among group


all project obstacles


Internal to


group vision



need time/volunteers


the group


need funding/access to finance


all project factors



need expertise/tech advice



project management



specific issues to their project



specific/technical aspects



need to engage with community



community engagement




all local external factors


all external obstacles



alternative culture/social capital



government policy/changes



geographical location



planning restrictions/hurdles





other bureaucracy


all support factors



lack of support from other actors



parent/linked org support



public apathy/attitudes/NIMBYs



community support



local organisations’ support


External to


local authorities’ support


the group


network organisations’ support



consultants’ support



all policy factors






policy support eg FITs/RHI



all wider contextual factors



rising energy prices/recession



awareness of CC/energy issues


Policy Implications

31. Community energy has been supported by successive UK governments aiming to harness its potential to support sustainable energy transitions. Our survey of UK community energy groups aims to provide robust evidence of the scope, scale, character, activities and challenges faced by the sector, to support such policymaking. Our research has revealed several key issues to be addressed when considering the further development of the sector.

32. Community energy is not reducible to a single entity. This is a highly diverse sector representing many types of actor and organisational forms, multiple sets of objectives (not all of which relate to energy), and many different practical strategies and technologies to achieve their goals. It is therefore exceedingly difficult to pinpoint specific features of the sector as a whole, or to aggregate these diverse groups and their activities into simple categories.

33. Although some groups do have ambitions to expand and grow, and others aim to deepen and offer suites of sustainable energy initiatives, others are simply providing local solutions to local needs as an end in itself, and have no desire to expand in the way that policymakers might hope. Community energy is not necessarily a tool to be wielded by energy ministers aiming for widespread change; some of the sector is content to remain small and self-contained.

34. Joined-up thinking is needed among government departments; the community energy sector addresses policy goals covering a number of different government departments, not solely energy and climate change. There is a challenge here for government and the sector to relate to each other more effectively to best achieve the sustainability goals (including but extending beyond energy) of these groups.

35. Performance measurement and project monitoring must acknowledge multiple objectives, for example, and avoid using single-dimensional criteria (such as carbon dioxide emissions reduced or kilowatt hours of energy produced) when multi-criteria appraisals would be more appropriate to capture the full range of outcomes.

36. The civil society basis of the sector is fundamental to its character and to its success at engaging with local communities, and makes the sector quite distinct from the large energy companies these community groups are aiming to work alongside. This uneven playing field points to vulnerabilities and tensions inherent in this model—the growth potential of voluntary associations is uncertain, and there are hurdles to be overcome in becoming more businesslike and commercial.

37. There is a limit to how much groups can achieve on their own. While a good strong group is a major strength, there are project-related weaknesses (lack of time, volunteers, money, material resources) that are difficult to meet internally. External sources of support are required to succeed and this indicates the strong need for consistent policy support, as well as intermediary networks, to ensure community energy projects have the resources they need to progress and achieve their objectives.

38. Community energy needs to link to other local development agencies and bodies, including community development workers, but these are services that have experienced cuts in the recent climate. Nevertheless, a serious community energy policy would ensure a deep community development basis.

39. The policy shift from grant-funded projects to a revenue-generating business model will have serious implications for projects in the sector, not all of whom will be able to adapt to the new policy regime.

40. To conclude, our research has revealed a wealth of civil society activity in the field of sustainable energy, tackling a wide range of sustainable energy and related issues, and growing as a sector. With appropriate policy support and clear funding streams, and robust intermediary organisations to share learning, we are cautiously optimistic that community energy can continue to grow and achieve its potential as a key player in the transition to a sustainable energy system.

Survey and Sampling Methods

41. An online survey of UK community energy groups was conducted between June and October 2011. We asked open- and closed-ended questions about the community groups themselves, their sustainable energy projects, their networking activities, and their success factors and obstacles. We sampled a wide range of groups and projects. Our criteria for inclusion was that the community group should be involved in a sustainable energy project (at any stage) and also that they should be the main, collective beneficiaries of the project outcomes. We compiled a list of 212 climate change, low carbon or sustainability organisations and agencies which were potentially involved in community energy projects. We also found 234 community groups and organisations involved in community energy. We invited them to complete the survey, or send the survey to their members, and our survey response totalled 190.

April 2013

Prepared 2nd August 2013