A couple of intriguing figures pop out in today’s announcement that local councils in the UK will soon be able to send, for profit,...

A couple of intriguing figures pop out in today’s announcement that local councils in the UK will soon be able to send, for profit, any clean energy they generate back into the electricity grid:

One is the number 0.01 per cent, which is the pitiable amount of electricity Britain currently gets from renewable sources generated by local authority-owned projects. Hopefully, that proportion can start growing, now that Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne has removed the ban that prevented councils from selling locally produced clean energy by sending it back into the national grid. The restriction is set to end on 18 August.

The other interesting figure is 100 … the factor by which Germany’s local-authority-generated clean energy exceeds the UK’s. Sounds like quite a lot, until you do the math and realise that even dark-green Germany is getting just 1 per cent of its renewable power from municipal projects.

That begs the question: Just how much clean energy can community-based sources actually generate, and will it ever be enough to keep the lights on if fossil-fuel supplies fail for whatever reason?

If the answer to that remains unclear, it’s certainly welcome news that a policy that prevents councils from selling the clean energy they produce is at last being laid to rest. It might have made sense in 1989, when the UK’s electricity industry was being privatised. But it makes no sense in 2010, when Britain is aiming to boost its renewable energy output as much as possible and local authorities are struggling to make ends meet in the face of declining revenues.

“This is a vital step to making community renewable projects commercially viable, to bring in long-term income to benefit local areas, and to secure local acceptance for low-carbon energy projects,” Huhne said. “For too long, Whitehall’s dogmatic reliance on ‘big’ energy has stood in the way of the vast potential role of local authorities in the UK’s green energy revolution.”

With the UK offering a feed-in tariff for those who send locally generated clean energy back into the grid, the new policy could mean as much as  £100 million a year in new income for councils across England and Wales.

Among those expected to benefit from the change is Woking Borough Council, which has established a company that generates green electricity and provides it to local customers via private transmission lines. The council’s energy installations include a photovoltaic canopy over the square outside Woking railway station, a combined heat-and-power network in the town’s centre, a high-efficiency housing project and numerous community buildings fitted with small scale renewables.

“(A)t long last councils will be able to earn money by selling green electricity generated from small-scale renewable projects to the grid,” said Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth. “It is a real incentive for them to bring in new clean energy schemes that will benefit everyone in the area, including poorer communities. With budget cuts looming, the cash raised will be more welcome than ever, and should be used for schemes like making homes energy efficient, which will slash energy bills, tackle fuel poverty and create jobs.”

“Fully realising the benefits of green power will take time and investment, but this has the potential to cut energy bills, reduce emissions and raise millions of pounds in much-needed income to maintain services and keep council tax down in these tough financial times,” added Gary Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association Environment Board. “Councils have lots of buildings, from offices and leisure centres to houses and flats, depots and community centres that could be transformed into local green power stations.”


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