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Renew your energy: June 2012 Archives

The development of wind power has provided many examples of divergent views and conflicts. For some it is the best way forward for dealing with climate change, for others it is an environmental disaster. Some wind supporters see objectors as retrogressive NIMBY's, while some objectors see developers as evil despoilers of scenic views. Aesthetic issues and landscape preservation are important, but perhaps more substantially some objectors claim the wind power cannot make much of a significant contribution to dealing with climate change or energy security.

With wind now at over 230 GW globally, it is good time to take stock and see how (and if) some of these issues have impacted on its development and how wind power might be expected to develop in future. Palgrave's new book 'Learning from Wind Power' edited by Joseph Szarka et al, attempts an overview. It says that the technology seems basically unproblematic, apart from the issue of intermittency, which is really just an operational and economic problem - it costs money to provide balancing services, and as the proportion of wind on the grid expands, more balancing has to be arranged. Less tractable are some of the institutional issues. As this book illustrates, in the UK, the planning permission processes and local objections have led to major delays, and the financial support system has arguably not been effective at creating the right investment climate, compared to that in other countries. Nevertheless wind is moving ahead in the UK, offshore especially, and it is likely to remain the dominant renewable source for some while in the UK and elsewhere.

Focussing on the UK, the book looks at some of the problems that will have to be overcome if the UK's ambitious targets for wind power, offshore especially, are to be met. In addition, it argues that many of the lessons that emerge from the wind field are also likely to be relevant to other renewables as they seek to move into wide scale use.

A key issue is financial support. The UK's Renewables Obligation (RO) has not been very successful for wind or any other renewable, arguably due to its emphasis on market competition. By contrast, the guaranteed price Feed-In Tariffs (FiTs) used across most of the rest of the EU have been very much more effective, delivering much more wind capacity (29GW in Germany, 6GW in the much winder UK) at lower costs per kW and per kWh, since it creates a stable investment climate. The UK belatedly introduced a small FiT system just for microgen projects (which led to 1GW of PV being installed), but, as part of the Electricity Market Reforms, the UK is in the process of trying to introduce a new competitive market based 'Contracts for a Difference' (CfD) system, to replace the RO, but also to be used to support new nuclear build and CCS projects.

Critics of the CfD have challenged the viability of a 'one size fits all' scheme, attempting to support a range of very different technology, all at different stages of development. They say that what is needed for wind and other near market renewables is a Feed In Tariff, with a price degression mechanism, as in Germany. They also query why nuclear, as an allegedly mature technology, should need extra support, whereas CCS is clearly still completely undeveloped and, if it is to go ahead, needs a separate bespoke support system.

As I suggest in my chapter in the book, the CfD seems to be moving from bad to worse. And as events have unfolded that does seem to be the case. Scottish and Southern Electric, Ecotricity, Good Energy, Renewable Energy Systems, Natural Power and Fred Olsen Renewables recently wrote to Energy Secretary Ed Davey warning that EMR proposals will only benefit nuclear generators and dissuade long-term investment in British renewables. The CfD system may not actually work very well for nuclear either. Some potential nuclear project investors have already backed off, claiming that it would not provide sufficient financial support. So no one is winning!

The UK's focus on market competition has also impacted on the way offshore wind grid links have been developed, with each individual offshore wind farm being linked up to the land separately. As I note in my chapter in this new book, that looked like leading to a lot of duplication, with, in some cases, very costly undersea links running close by in parallel. Fortunately, this problem has now been recognised. DECC and Ofgem recently agreed that 'more co-ordination in the development of offshore links and infrastructure can be achieved', if 'instead of building individual connections for each development, they could be interlinked to lower the overall construction and operating costs'. They say 'this would mean the offshore network could grow incrementally and efficiently. This co-ordinated approach could reduce the cost of offshore connections by 8-15%.' That would 'help meet the Government's target of reducing the cost of offshore wind to £100/MWh by 2020,' and could also 'pave the way for an offshore network in the North Sea linking wind farms off Britain's coast to other European countries'.

This supergrid idea is crucial for the future development of the UKs huge wind power resource. The UK is looking to have perhaps 18GW in place offshore by 2020 and, as well as providing nodes for the wind projects to link to, the supergrid would allow us to export any excess wind generated power and import power when wind production was low. There are already around 3 GW of interconnector links to France and the Netherlands, but nine more are either in construction, planning or subject to feasibility studies. For example a 1 GW Kent-Belgium link, planned for 2018 and there maybe a 1.4 GW link to Norway, 900km, by 2019.

A new electricity market will emerge as this system develops, with prices determined by supply and demand balances in each part of the EU. It may well be that, as a result, some of the rather parochial concerns driving the UKs EMR will have to be widened. The EMR does include proposals for a new 'capacity market', with a contract auction system for generators who can help balance variable renewables. But is a market-based system what is needed, given the strategic importance of grid balancing via the supergrid? How about a pan-EU cross-feed tariff system?

System-wide issues like this are likely to be increasingly important in the yeas ahead, but for the moment, the focus is on individual technologies, with the emphasis on cost reduction and trying to deal with funding, deployment and planning problems. Wind will remain dominant, but solar, wave, tidal, biomass and other options are coming up rapidly behind. Given that wind power has been the pioneer, many of the lessons and insights outlined in this book should prove to be valuable to those that follow.

Deep geothermal energy

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Geothermal energy could supply 20% of UK electricity from around 9.5GW of installed capacity, according to a report by consultants Sinclair Knight Mertz (SKM) for the Renewable Energy Association (REA). Geothermal projects with a 25 year lifetime could also, it claims, support 100GW of heat generating capacity, meeting all UK space heating needs.

There have been some pioneering geothermal heat projects in the UK before, including the aquifer project in Southampton, but the new 'enhanced geothermal' technology involves drilling deep wells to access higher temperatures for electricity production. So you are not limited just to aquifer sites, and the deep geothermal resource is widely spread around the UK, with 'hotspots' in Cornwall, Weardale, Lake District, E. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Worcester, Dorset, Hampshire, N Ireland & Scotland - see below.

Cluff Geothermal's summary of the UK resource:

Cornwall and the South West HEAT: 13,000 MWth POWER: 4,000 MWe

The North East HEAT: 9,000 MWth POWER: 4,000 MWe

The Lake District HEAT: 8,000 MWth POWER: 2,300 MWe

Wessex Basin HEAT: 33,000 MWth

Cheshire Basin HEAT: 14,000 MWth

East of England* HEAT: 12,000 MWth

Worcester Basin* HEAT: 6,700 MWth

Larne Basin HEAT: 1,000 MWth

*With heat pump.

However, the REA says, despite this significant potential, the UK support is only about half that in Germany and Switzerland. As a result of support in Germany, the deep geothermal industry now employs 6,000 people and has attracted €4 bn of investment. The REA comments 'We don't want to be left out of a global industry which is estimated to be worth £30 bn by 2020.' Although some pioneering 'hot dry rock' work was done in Cornwall between 1976 and 1991, it was halted, and the UK government's current commitment is relatively limited, although there are some projects underway. EGS Energy is developing a 3MWe demonstration geothermal project on a site at the Eden Project near St Austell in Cornwall. It was awarded £2m via the Deep Geothermal Challenge Fund. Geothermal Engineering Ltd. is planning a plant near Redruth, with a well reaching 4.5km below ground level to access rocks at temperatures of around 200°C. This will provide up to 55 MW of renewable heat and 10 MW of electricity. It was awarded £1.45m in funding by DECC in Dec 2009.

Three geothermal energy projects run by Keele University, Newcastle and Durham University and Cofely District Energy in Southampton are sharing £1.1m from the Government's Deep Geothermal Challenge Fund's second round.

Once running, geothermal electricity generation projects are eligible for support under the governments Renewables Obligation scheme, earning Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs), but the REA notes that the UK industry 'has been shocked by initial proposals to freeze support for deep geothermal power at 2 ROCs, a level too low to stimulate domestic investment'. It adds 'Deep geothermal power is a new technology in the UK and it requires similar support to wave and tidal in its initial development phase.'

The REA claims that the increase in costs associated with raising support for geothermal power to match levels proposed for wave and tidal will be less than £11 million per annum. It says that the support needs for deep geothermal heat are within a similar range to other renewable heat technologies. The REA estimates the additional annual cost of increasing the level of RHI for deep geothermal heat will be £1.3 million.

SKM's report states that 'risk reduction support is the most critical in developing a cost effective large utilisation of the geothermal resources in the UK. This is particularly needed to enable the early development of sedimentary aquifers for direct heat use as this offers the potential for the most significant and early contribution to meeting the UK commitments to the EU's Renewable Energy Directive.'

It claims that a Feed in Tariff level of approximately 300 £/MWh for electrical generation and combined heat and power projects is required to develop these geothermal projects in the UK. This is approx equal to five Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) /MWh. For heat only projects a Renewable Heat Incentive of 30 to 70 £/MWh is needed.

SKM concludes that, with the implementation of its recommended support mechanisms, 'it should be possible for geothermal energy to provide the UK with a cumulative benefit of 5,000 Giga Watt hours (GWh) of electricity and 32,000 GWh heat by 2030.'

Globally there is over 10GW of geothermal electricity generation capacity in place and much more heat supply capacity. The USA is in the lead, with over 120 new projects under development, at least 5GW, but Germany and Japan now taking geothermal increasingly seriously. Iceland is also a leading user of geothermal energy. Enthusiasts argue that if you go deep enough the power available is almost unlimited, although there are environmental (and cost) limitations. Some early systems vent gasses from underground, which can lead to contamination (e.g. from SO2), but modern closed-loop systems re-inject the extracted water. In some cases, drilling deep wells and opening out heat capturing fractures, can also trigger micro quakes, in much the same way as shale gas fraking, And geothermal energy is not strictly renewable - the local heat gradient will be exhausted after few decades, so new wells in new locations will have to be dug, while the heat gradient at the original site recovers. The ultimate source of the energy is of course nuclear isotope decay deep in the earth's core, so geothermal is actually 'natural nuclear power' and to that extent is replenished. Since, during the wells lifetime, energy can be produced continually, geothermal is a firm source, which could be used to back up variable renewable sources, especially if operated in combined heat and power mode.

*You don't always have to dig deep to get heat. Excess heat from steel plants could be used feed the already well developed District Heating network in Sheffield, which generates 21MW of electricity and 60MW of heat, providing an extra 20MW of heat. news/excess-heat-from-steel-plants-could-be-used-to-heat-sheffield/1012592.article#ixzz1v2CLgn9q

Energy storage

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The UK Government is failing to provide sufficient support for electricity storage technologies, which are becoming increasingly important to secure electricity supplies, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said in a new policy statement. It claims that UK electricity demand is set to double by 2050 due, in part, to the increase in use of electricity to provide heating and power cars and this increase in demand, combined with the UK's ambitious climate change targets and the EU Renewables Directive, which means the UK is set to rely increasingly on renewable power. However, it says that renewable technologies like wind and solar power, although presenting many benefits, are inherently intermittent and as such cause problematic swings in supply on the UK grid. Hence the need for storage.

Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: 'For too long we've been reliant on using expensive "back-up" fossil-fuel plants to cope with the inherent intermittency of many renewables. Electricity storage is potentially cleaner and once fully developed is likely to be much cheaper.' The IMechE also lists some other positive benefits: storage units are more modular and flexible, with faster start up rates than some backup plants, and can be used at various scales and locations

There are some problems with this analysis. Firstly it not at all clear that demand will double by 2050. That, it has been claimed, is just a projection adopted by DECC to justify nuclear expansion and has been challenged as unproven: see the ACE)/Unlock Democracy report 'A Corruption of Governance', and the new AECB study on energy efficiency:

Secondly, studies have indicated that we may not need extra backup plants (or storage) until after 2030, and then not that many (e.g. see Poyry's 2011 study). Thirdly, since storage plants inevitably spend most of their time not doing anything, storage is expensive. Backup plants are cheaper and are likely to remain so - the cheapest form of storage is gas, which could be green gas, produced by AD from wastes and also by electrolysis using excess wind-derived power. That said, the wind-to-gas option is new and likely to be expensive, so at some point new electricity storage technologies (e.g. flow batteries, compressed air, cryogenic air storage) may prove to be economically viable. It depends on how the overall system is developed. It may be cheaper to get access to existing pumped hydro storage in Europe via supergrid links. That in turn depends on how the market is structured. If carbon prices as set high and renewables accelerate, then there could be a large new market for balancing services. The UK's new Capacity market system, proposed as part of the Electricity Market Reforms, may help. But it's not clear what are the best technologies for serving this market. For example, as I have argued in an earlier blog, heat storage is much cheaper than direct electricity storage, so we might consider a system in which heat - and gas - transmission and storage play major roles.

Given that there are uncertainties, it makes sense to push ahead with storage of various types as one balancing option, and IMechE is right to say that the Government incentives and policies to support development and deployment of electricity storage technologies are currently scant and ill-designed. But as well as ignoring heat storage, there is the risk that arguing that we have to have large amounts of expensive electrical storage backup for wind etc is actually a covert way of constraining them.

IMechE say that the UK currently has 2.8GW of electricity storage capacity in the form of pumped hydro-electric storage, and that, according to National Grid, we will need 8GW of electricity storage capacity by 2025 if the penetration of wind power in the network is 30%. But as indicated above, that's not necessarily the only option. In addition to green gas production/storage for use in backup plants, and the potential for heat storage, the UK also has 2GW or so of HVDC grid connection links with continental Europe and that is planned to expand to maybe 10GW and could be as much as 20GW by 2050, which could be used for balancing. Building that would also be expensive. But then so would electricity storage. And as noted above, we might not need much of either.

So while it's important to note that, as IMechE says, the worldwide market for electricity storage is estimated to be worth $20-$25 billion a year by 2020, we need to think through how much we might actually need in the UK. That thankfully is one of IMechE's recommendations. They also suggest that the UK Government's Electricity Market Reform (EMR), which is examining and revising the commercial and regulatory structure of the nation's electricity market, should take into account the unique nature of electricity storage and remunerate investors and operators accordingly. And finally, that it should encourage and support UK development of storage technologies for exploitation in world markets, by advancing the commercial-scale demonstration of electricity storage technologies in the UK, and thereby creating technical value that UK companies can exploit in markets worldwide.

These are all sensible recommendation as far as they go, but they could perhaps be broadened- as I have indicated, electricity storage is only one option for grid balancing and electricity is only one option for energy transmission and use. As DECC now seems to be accepting, we might also make use of green gas and green heat as energy transmission and storage vectors, with balancing potential.

One time Welsh Secretary of State Peter Hain recently resigned from the Shadow Cabinet to devote more time to promoting the idea of a Tidal barrage on the Severn estuary. He said that it could potentially be 'the biggest single source of renewable energy in Europe and one of the biggest in the world.'

It would certainly be a large project. The version proposed by the Severn Tidal Power Group in the early/mid 2000's would have 8.6 giga watts (GW) of turbine generating capacity mounted in a barrage stretching 11 miles or so across the Severn from Lavernock Point in Wales to Bream Down in Somerset and costing over £30 billion. It could generate around 4.6 % of the UK's electricity. However, it is not clear how much of this could actually be used. The barrage would trap a head of water at high tide and generate power from it on the ebb for a few hours twice each day. But, the tide cycles shift each day and also vary in height over the lunar cycle, so that at times the barrage would deliver full power when there was no demand for it, but at others, when demand was high, it would produce no power at all. Who needs 8.6 GW in the middle of a summer's night? It is conceivable that at some point in the future we will have a hydrogen economy, so that large slabs of energy like this could be stored, but for the moment the big barrage just looks too big and inflexible.

In a report in 2007 the Sustainable Development Commission calculated that, assuming the barrage's output offset power from gas fired plants, once built, it would only avoid around 0.92% of UK total annual carbon emissions. You can get far larger emission reductions at much lower costs from almost any other renewable energy option. Add to that the massive potential for negative local and regional environmental impacts from building a structure that in effect dams up this very large estuary, and it is not surprising that the government, in its last review of the project in 2010, decided that it was not worth supporting at this point as a publicly funded project. However it left the door open to the private sector to come up with proposals.

The rejection of the barrage plan and slow progress on other smaller barrage ideas around the country, has had a positive effect in that commercial attention has now been focused on what is arguably a much better concept- smaller independent tidal turbines mounted on the sea bed, running on horizontal tidal flow rather than trying to create a head of water from the vertical rise and fall of the tides. Marine Current Turbines' 1.2 MW SeaGen unit has be running very successfully since 2008 in Strangford Narrows Northern Ireland, supplying electricity to the grid. They are now planning an 8MW tidal array near Skye in Scotland and 10 MW tidal array off N. Wales. There are many other tidal current projects. The attraction is that they are modular, flexible and have low environmental impacts. In all over 1GW of projects are planned around the UK - in which case, given that high tides occur at different times around the country, the net output from the tidal turbine network as whole would be more continuous than with a single large barrage.

However the Severn estuary - and the big barrage - still attracts enthusiasm. Hain is backing a new proposal for a Severn Barrage project proposed by private consortium, Corlan Hafren (Welsh for 'Severn Group'), which includes engineering consultancies Arup and Halcrow.

It would be at the same location as chosen the STPG, but, it's claimed, would be cheaper and less invasive. Hain says 'The private finance is potentially in place through the Corlan Hafren business project and they have assembled the necessary financial interests, sovereign wealth funds and investments'. But he adds 'We will need to get a rather complex hybrid bill through Parliament that's got to be a private bill - it will need government support.'

Prof. Roger Falconer of Cardiff University has also backed the idea. He estimated the cost of the new scheme at £26bn. The developers reckon they can improve the economics by generating electricity on both ebb and flow tides, allowing greater flexibility in the way it is operated and reducing the likely environmental impact. The total energy output would, they say, be similar to that from the STPG design, but it would be generated over a longer time, with four production periods, thus improving the match with grid demand. The tidal head it produced would also be less, with a larger number of slower turbines being used, so potentially reducing local environmental impacts.

However, the RSPB, WWF and other environmental/wildlife groups, who strenuously opposed the STPG barrage idea, do not yet seem convinced that this new one is much better. For example they fear that the loss of mud flats, although reduced in the new scheme, could still have a major impact on wading birds. By contrast, the supporters argue that the barrage could actually improve biodiversity in the estuary, since, due to the reduction in tidal flow, silt would drop out so that the water became clearer, supporting more species. The barrage would also offer flood/storm protection for sites up steam.

Cutting across this debate, there are more radical ideas for harvesting the energy of the estuary. Friends of the Earth have always promoted tidal lagoons as less invasive options. These would be free-standing self-bounded and segmented reservoirs in shallow water in the middle of the estuary - so they wouldn't interfere significantly with the tidal flows. DECCs 2010 study looked at variant, in-shore lagoons impounding some of the coast-line. They were not impressed. Neither was FoE - they would have larger impacts on shore/near shore based species.

A completely different low-impact project concept is the SMEC venturi turbine system proposed by VerdErg. This would have series of small venturi pipes mounted in a permeable 'tidal fence', the estuary flow sucking water through attached secondary pipes, with these secondary flows being used to drive generators. VerdErg see this approach being applicable at a range of scales. It has looked at Solway Firth as one possible site for a prototype, and also at smaller river sites. But the Severn would be the big one!

There have been many other proposals for tidal fences, tidal reefs, two-way turbines and the like, with some ideas being reinvented. For example, two-way operation is an old idea, discarded since the gains were seen as small (you can't then take either ebb or flow generation to full completion) and not enough to offset the costs and maintenance penalties of variable pitch turbines. So far however, despite many projects and plans over the years, this is one big one that seems to have got away! Maybe it is just too big.

SDC report

Frontier Economics Report for WWF, RSPB et al

DECC report

FoE report:


Community energy

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As I mentioned in my last blog, an ESRC backed Sustainability Transitions seminar series included a one day conference in Manchester in April, organised by SURF (Salford Universities Centre for Urban and Regional Futures) and SPRU (Sussex Universities Science Policy Research Unit) which explored the lessons of the 1970s for the current low carbon transition. For example it looked some of the pioneering work at the Centre for Alternative Technology on low energy housing, including community scaled heating systems.

For a range of reasons the deployment of new ideas like this has been very slow in the UK. As Jenny Pickerill from Leicester University commented 'progress is always slower than we hope'. She looked at some examples of community based and self-build projects - see her useful report available from She noted that there were now 31 Low Impact Communities in the UK.

The community scale was of course a key to many alternative energy initiatives in the 1970s and community scaled projects are still moving ahead, although, as ever, financial support is still hard to find. To help, Co-operatives UK has called on the Government to introduce a premium rate under the Feed-in Tariff scheme for community renewable energy schemes, following the release of a new report that reveals the growing numbers of people who are choosing to start renewable energy schemes in their communities, against all the odds.

Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK told ClickGreen: "Community-based renewable energy generation brings with it a number of wider public benefits and we believe these warrant a premium level Feed-in Tariff. Such a premium would recognise that engaging local people in this type of project costs both time and money. Schemes based in the community tend to be smaller in scale than many commercial schemes and as a result have to pay a higher cost for their capital and well as the costs of genuine community engagement. A premium feed in tariff would help compensate for this. Community-led projects also tend to go the extra mile by reinvesting some of their surpluses in additional renewable schemes and in energy efficiency measures."

The report from Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Group is a comprehensive guide to a new movement of communities who are taking action for greener energy into their own hands by investing money and together installing solar panels, large wind turbines or hydro power. The report shows that: • There are 43 communities who are in the process of or already producing renewable energy; • Together local residents have invested £16m •Green economy co-ops are the fastest growing part of the UK co-op sector, having grown by 24% since 2008. More negatively, the report also highlights barriers facing communities trying to develop projects: shifting government legislation, planning hurdles and bureaucracy making it hard for local schemes to get established: e.g. 250 people have been involved with the £200,000 River Bain Hydro project in North Yorkshire, but had to spend a large proportion of its limited time negotiating with power companies because of a lack of co-ordination. As they explain: 'Between the power house and the grid, a distance of a hundred yards, we ended up with five different organisations involved in delivery.'

Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative Group, said: 'The potential for a community-led clean energy revolution in the UK is enormous. Countries like Germany and Denmark have shown us the way. With The Co-operative Bank's commitment to invest £1 bn in renewable energy by 2013, and our broader support for co-operative enterprise, we are ready to help realise the significant benefits that community energy can deliver for society and communities.'

The report highlights examples like Ouse Valley Energy Service Company (OVESCo), in Sussex, owned by 250 people who installed solar panels on a local brewery. Overall projects range from over £2m invested by over 2,700 people in Westmill Wind Farm near Swindon, through to around £38,000 invested by around 34 local residents to install solar panels on a primary school in Nayland, Suffolk. Co-op Report: /documents/co-operative-renewable-energy-uk-guide-growing-sector.

The community energy ideas has also received support from the influential centre-right think tank Respublica which urged the government to deliver "truly transformative capitalism which places the market back into the hands of the people", with government departments working more closely to promote community renewable energy schemes, including offering tax breaks. The report has been endorsed by Friends of the Earth.

Respublica proposes that the Treasury should extend Community Investment Tax Relief to promote direct investment in community energy schemes, while also allowing communities to bid for the ownership of their local grid by partnering with energy suppliers. It says the UK should aim to scale up the market for community energy, mirroring similar successes in Germany, where green energy supplies 20 per cent of its electricity, of which community schemes account for a quarter. It adds that the renewables industry was worth an estimated €6.8bn to German municipalities in 2009, with 2.2 million solar power installations, 22,000 wind energy systems, 400,000 heat pumps and 4,500 biogas plants.

To help move things along, there's a new 'Rough Guide to Community Energy' distributed for free to encourage people to launch carbon-cutting and renewable energy projects in their local communities. It covers everything from setting up a group to picking a renewable technology, as well as providing advice on finances and governance. It also features many case studies of real-world groups. The Rough Guide to Community Energy, by Duncan Clark and Malachi Chadwick is published by Rough Guides, supported financially by M&S and is being distributed by 10:10. Free at:

In addition, the FSE Group (FSE) and lead partner National Energy Foundation (NEF) have launched a Community Generation Fund which aims to address critical barriers to community-led project development by providing support at both pre-planning development and post-planning construction stages, to community energy generation projects that can achieve technical and financial viability, community inclusion and social impact. The Fund aims to bring creation and ownership of renewable energy generation within the reach of those communities seeking to create clean energy, social engagement and a long-term income source for the good of their community. An initial £1.25m has been made available for this initiative and further investment is expected to follow.