Community Energy: A Way Forward for Community and Voluntary Groups in NI
The third sector must find ways to make it more sustainable. Community energy presents an opportunity of doing so.
Community energy allows us to reflect upon our relationship with energy and has the potential to produce significant benefits for Northern Ireland. Importantly, community energy has the potential to help create a more sustainable third sector.
Community energy projects offer a way to help secure the long term financial sustainability of community organisations. Wind energy projects for example, have an operational lifetime of approximately 25 years, thereby providing a long term source of income. The ability to provide a long term source of income is particularly important to take into account, given that many community organisations have a high dependency on grant funding.
These projects also help to develop skills and experience which people gain through getting involved in them, thereby growing social capital and helping communities make the most of their talents.
We have seen significant growth in the community energy sector in other jurisdictions and particularly in Scotland. This has presented new opportunities for community based organisations to invest in new services and local facilities for the benefit of the entire community.
An example of this is Neilston Development Trust (NDT) which is involved in a shared ownership project. NDT’s stake in the Neilston Community Wind Farm provides a long term income to fund projects outlined in Neilston’s local regeneration plan which was developed by NDT and the community.
Fortunately for communities in Scotland, there is support available through the Community And Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES), which has played a crucial role in encouraging and achieving the uptake of community energy across Scotland. CARES was established by the Scottish Government and aims to provide loans towards the high risk, pre-planning consent stages of renewable energy projects which have significant community engagement and benefit.
Northern Ireland needs to grasp the opportunities which community energy presents. Importantly, the Executive needs to put in place a more supportive environment for community energy in Northern Ireland – this includes directing resources to communities wishing to develop community energy projects. However community and voluntary organisations as well as social enterprises need to be proactive and seek opportunities to either develop their own projects or to work with developers e.g. through shared ownership.
It is important that we look for ways to create a more sustainable third sector – community energy presents a way to achieve this.