Support for the creation of Local Energy Communities

Ireland’s Energy White Paper (December 2015) and National Mitigation Plan (June 2017) emphasise the role of citizens and communities in meeting energy targets for a low carbon future. 

The national Sustainable Energy Communities (SEC) Programme, run by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), is one of the main pillars for driving the growth and development, as well as building the capacity of, energy communities across the country in line with climate action objectives. This initiative was first launched in 2015 off the back of Ireland’s Energy White Paper to support communities to develop energy management skills and knowledge. As of November 2021, over 590 community groups across Ireland are now part of the SEAI’s Sustainable Energy Communities network, a rapidly expanding national movement towards a cleaner energy future.  Ireland’s Climate Action Plan has set a target to grow this network to 1,500 sustainable energy communities by 2030.

What is an SEC?

A Sustainable Energy Community (SEC) is described as any number of people who come together, to work together, to develop a sustainable energy system for the benefit of their wider community, and to ultimately change the way the community thinks about and uses energy. This can be achieved by aiming to be as efficient as possible, to use renewable energy where feasible to do so, and to consider the use of smart energy solutions as well. SECs can and are strongly encouraged to include a range of different energy users/stakeholders from across the community, this can include the likes of homes, sports clubs, community centres, churches, schools and local businesses.  In doing this, the SEC is taking the most holistic approach possible, taking all local needs into consideration in an inclusive, collaborative manner, rather than focusing on any one area in isolation. It also enables the SEC to share local resources, skills, knowledge and experiences from a range of different perspectives which leads to longer term benefits which can be felt by all involved.

The SEC network is very diverse. Almost 50% of the overall network is made up of Community Development Associations and Voluntary groups. Following on from that, the next largest groups to be represented in the network are Tidy Towns, community-based organisations and/or services, and educational institutions. We also are also seeing a growing number of sports clubs, local rural businesses, housing and residents associations and energy cop-operatives joining the network.

SECs, upon joining the network have the opportunity to indicate their key aims, drivers and areas of interest, which are categorised into the following themes

  • Renewable energy generation and/or community regeneration (66% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)
  • Energy efficiency and/or financial savings (76% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)
  • Sustainable/low carbon community (68% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)
  • Behavioural change/energy education (59% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)
  • Sustainable transport (26% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)
  • Fuel poverty (24% of SEC network indicated an interest in this area)

Benefits of becoming an SEC

There are a number of benefits associated with becoming an SEC.  As part of the network SECs have access to a range of supports from SEAI and from other SECs in the network, to share knowledge and experience and give advice to each other.  SEAI also provide support directly to SECs and through a panel of mentors who provide hands on/on-the-ground support to SECs to establish themselves and their ambitions as a SEC.  Through the process, SECs can:

  • Achieve financial and energy savings
  • Enhance the comfort, health and wellbeing from more energy efficient buildings
  • Boost local employment opportunities
  • Support community and local development
  • Build capacity and skills across the community and access support and funding
  • Contribute to national energy targets and reduce carbon emissions

The SEC network is designed to enable communities to manage and save energy across all sectors. The programme has a very simple 3-step approach or journey for SECs to follow upon joining the network, which is referred to as Learn-Plan-Do.

Step 1 – Learn:

Your community joins the SEC network where you will be assigned a local county mentor to provide hands-on support and guidance to help you set out your goals and how to achieve them. You can learn from other SECs already in the network and share learning and advice. You can also get access to learning materials, training and events across a number of different areas, to raise awareness and help to upskill your SEC group and wider community.  

Step 2 – Plan:

If your community decides to progress, SEAI will support you in doing a baseline Energy Master Plan for your community. You enter into partnership with SEAI and further support is provided as you progress this plan.  By establishing a baseline Energy Master Plan, SECs can identify energy savings opportunities and a programme of activities for the community to consider undertaking.

Step 3 – Do:

Once you have developed an Energy Master Plan, your community will be able to prioritise the best energy projects to start with and can then identify grants or supports to help achieve these projects. SEAI run the Communities Energy Grant which supports small to medium scale energy projects, developing community skills to manage capital projects and empower communities to lead on projects in their own communities.  Through this scheme communities can also build and maintain energy awareness and knowledge locally and have the opportunity to showcase small scale demonstration projects to highlight innovative energy solutions for the wider community.

Support for communities and citizens through EU & national policy commitments

The revised Renewable Energy Directive (REDII), as part of the EU Clean Energy Package, now provides the right for citizens and communities to produce, store, consume (including self-consuming) and sell renewable energy. Energy communities now also have the right to share energy.  For this to be effective, EU Member States need to ensure that grid operators cooperate with energy communities.

The new REDII says home production of renewable electricity can be sold with some charges applied, but these network charges should only reflect the cost of injecting electricity to the grid.  Community energy advocates have argued that charges and fees should not apply for electricity that is self-produced and consumed at home. The REDII endorses that principle.  

The new EU rules required that governments ensure that from 2021, renewable self-consumers receive a fair payment for the electricity they sell into the grid.  This payment must correspond to at least the market value of that electricity.

These new EU rules must be adopted by each EU Member State. Each state must develop enabling frameworks including support for self-consumption and payments for injecting renewable energy to the grid.  They must also develop and submit National Energy & Climate Plans (National Energy and Climate Plan 2021-2030) to the European Commission by the end of 2019, and adopt these rules/plans into national policy and law by 2021.

Ireland’s All of Government Climate Action Plan 2019 committed to put in place a coherent support scheme for micro-generation with a price for selling power to the grid and to open up the opportunity for community participation in renewable generation as well as community gain arrangements.

The Government strongly supports enabling people to sell excess electricity they have produced back to the grid. To enable this, the Government have set out the following objectives.

  • We have established a pilot micro-generation grant scheme for solar PV, targeting self-consumption, which provides a grant of circa 30% of the installation costs for individual homes. Building on the pilot, we will put an ongoing support scheme in place for microgeneration by 2021 at the latest (this scheme is currently being finalised following public consultation), focusing on a number of key pillars, including: equity and accessibility for all, ongoing technology cost and remuneration analysis, addressing technical barriers and planning constraints, a clear grid connection policy, and supporting community participation in micro-generation.  This will be further supported by measures in building regulations.
  • Mechanical electricity meters will be replaced in every house by 2024 under the Smart Metering Programme. This will facilitate better demand management and cost savings for consumers, particularly when closely aligned with the ambitious roll-out of retrofitting programmes and microgeneration capacity for homes and small enterprises
  • Change the electricity market rules in early 2020 in order to enable micro-generated electricity to be sold to the grid.  This should include provision for a feed-in tariff for micro-generation to be set at least at the wholesale price point
  • Design market mechanisms, network tariffs, competitive auctions for renewables and the public services obligation in a way that distributes costs fairly, including in terms of competitiveness
  • Continue promoting closer working with community and enterprise by Energy Obligated Entities to ensure wider community gain

The Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) is a flagship Government policy in Ireland designed to deliver on commitments to decarbonise Ireland’s electricity grid, harness natural resources and bring renewable energy into the heart of Irish communities.  The RESS will be the key policy measure that will drive the delivery of the 80% RES-E target, attracting significant international investment in the renewable sector in Ireland and driving down consumer costs.  The RESS design is at the forefront of international best practice in competitive auction design, community investment and ownership opportunities.  

RESS is based on an auction system, where renewable generators compete against each other for contracts by bidding in a price for the power they can provide.  The auction system will help to deliver lower prices for electricity and a guaranteed price for energy generation over a set period of time.  Projects that are successful through RESS auctions will be awarded a contract for a 15-year period.

A number of community aspects have been built into the fabric of RESS, to empower and enable communities to participate in the generation of renewable electricity and support the energy transition.  The community aspects are included for the express purpose of involving communities in the development of projects to share in the benefits and to support the national objective of 70% renewable electricity which is viewed as impossible without societal and community support of these projects.

There are 3 key aspects in RESS specific to communities:

  1. Community Category in auction – separate community category in RESS auctions, ring-fenced for community-led projects (100% owned by community) between 0.5 – 5MW in scale
  2. Community Enabling Framework – range of supports and resources to support communities to develop and deliver their own renewable electricity generation projects
  3. Community Benefit Funds (CBF) – mandatory for all successful RESS projects to establish & administer a CBF of €2/MWh to the local communities within the vicinity of their projects.  These payments must be made on an annual basis over the lifetime of the projects.

This article was put together by Caoimhe McCarthy, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, (SEAI).