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The UK needs a renewable energy right to invest

By Ramsay Dunning  

Is public ownership the way forward for renewables? © Armin Kübelbeck

Every major political party in the UK is committed to an expansion of community energy—and why shouldn’t they be? Across Europe there are now hundreds of co-operatives and social enterprises that are not only delivering clean, low-carbon energy but local employment opportunities, community development funds and fuel poverty alleviation.

When politicians laud community energy they usually point to Germany, where nearly half of renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals, community groups and private developers. That’s in a country where renewables accounted for a sizeable 31 per cent of electricity generation in the first half of 2014.

But there is a country that has an even more impressive track record. Wind power provided 41 per cent of Denmark’s electricity consumption in the first half of 2014, and 62 per cent in January. This incredible progress is in large part down to the fact that 70-80 per cent of wind turbines in the country are under some form of community ownership. Denmark’s Right to Invest legislation requires developers to offer 20 per cent ownership of wind projects larger than 25m to local communities. In Denmark (and Germany for that matter), citizens and communities have been the driving force for not only the development of renewable energy revolutions, but their acceptance as well.

In the UK few similar opportunities have existed for ordinary people to get directly involved.

The business I have the privilege to lead, Co-operative Energy, is a customer-owned energy supplier. We have some 220,000 customers and seek to not only source the greater part of our electricity from renewable sources (68 per cent last year), but from community generation projects. We’ve made lots of progress (we have 15 power purchase agreements with community groups), but there simply isn’t enough community generation in the UK to meet our needs. That would change if a meaningful Right to Invest was introduced in the UK.

The government is moving forward on backstop legislation to encourage Right to Invest in renewables, but it offers too little (5 per cent stake maximum) at too high a threshold (5MW)—and its enactment is merely an option at this point. It is similarly positive that an industry task force has been established to progress matters on a voluntary basis, but we need a mandate to move matters forward speedily.

If a Right to Invest was extended to all 1MW+ wind and solar projects in the UK at a meaningful level (minimum 25 per cent stake offered), and the options taken up in large part, then the resulting £20bn of financial investment by UK citizens could generate in excess of £700m per annum over the next 20 years. While £20bn may sound like a lot, it is equivalent to just 1.7 per cent of the UK’s £1.2 trillion of cash holdings.

The involvement of citizens would bring with it many additional benefits, not least a broadening of the political support base that will be crucial for the UK staying the course on renewable energy progress. It would also usher in a new era of social economy in the UK—which is why the Social Economy Alliance wants to see Right to Invest pursued here in the UK for renewable energy and other asset classes.

Almost 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher called for a “crusade of popular capitalism” that would “enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation.” This never came to pass—our stock exchange has never been more in the hands of foreign investors. What we now need is a crusade for a social economy: a crusade that offers the many the opportunity to invest in the assets and infrastructure that we support with our taxes and custom. A crusade which begins with unlocking finance for renewable energy and helping deliver the low carbon economy so vital to our future health and prosperity.

To date, investment banks and private equity groups have been the major beneficiaries of the UK’s renewable energy expansion—while expansion has been paid for by levies on the bills of energy users in the UK. It is only fair that those same people should have the opportunity to quickly and easily invest in the UK’s low carbon, renewable future. They should have a Right to Invest.

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