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Bristol, United Kingdom

Nexus between community and municipal power in Bristol’s quest for energy democracy

Bristol is the largest city in the south-west of the United Kingdom. It has a strong history of environmental and sustainable initiatives, and was awarded Green Capital of Europe in 2015. This award was won partly thanks to the richness of grassroots sustainability initiatives, including urban food growing projects and community energy projects.

Latest funding launched to promote clean energy communities in Bristol |from Solar Power Portal

Affected population 449,300
By Emilia Melville

Bristol is also a divided city, with tackling inequality at the top of the Mayor’s 2015 manifesto commitment. It is a port whose historic wealth is associated with the transatlantic slave trade, and a place of arrival for Afro-Caribbean people in the 1950s. In the 1980s, racial tension erupted into riots. Much of the environmental grassroots work in the city is led by relatively affluent, educated, white, middle class people. The Green Capital year provided an opportunity for critical discussion of the lack of representation of Black and ethnic minority groups in the environmental sector, through a series of ‘Green and Black’ debates led by community radio station Ujima.

Bristol has many leaders on sustainable energy, including the city council, the community energy sector, and the national energy charity Centre for Sustainable Energy. It is also a centre of resistance against unsustainable energy projects, including nuclear power at Hinkley Point, 40 miles away, fracking in the Bristol area and surrounding countryside, and a biomass power station burning imported wood in the port area.

This case study focuses on the activities of the local government and the community energy sector in developing sustainable energy projects, and the relationship between the two, and ends with learning points and opportunity for next steps.

Picture of the city of Bristol.

Local government: Bristol City Council

Bristol City Council is the second local authority in the UK to set up a fully licensed energy supply company, called Bristol Energy. The council has also set up an ambitious residential energy efficiency scheme called Warm Up Bristol, and is investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency on its own buildings and land. This has developed over many years, as shown in the timeline in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Bristol City Council energy timeline

The Energy Management Unit was founded in 1992. It implemented a local biomass strategy, used the public sector revolving fund Salix to carry out £3-million energy efficiency investment, and developed wind turbines in Avonmouth, the port area of Bristol. It also commissioned several studies of the technical potential for renewable energy in Bristol.[1] In 2013, the Energy Management Unit and the European Local ENergy Assistance (ELENA) team were brought together in a new Energy Services team[2], which delivered the EU programme. This provided £2.5 million in technical assistance funding for local energy projects, and came with a requirement to leverage an additional £62.5 million in three years. The ELENA programme includes four streams: energy saving for social and private housing, energy efficiency of publicly owned buildings, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on Council and other public sector and commercial buildings, and district heating networks. The programme also includes setting up a fully licensed energy company. Three of these, the private housing energy saving scheme, the solar PV installations, and the establishment of the Bristol Energy Company, are described in more detail.

Warm Up Bristol

The private housing energy saving scheme set up by Bristol City Council is named “Warm Up Bristol.” This scheme has successfully implemented over 1,000 measures, particularly solid wall insulation, with a focus on three neighbourhoods supported by grant funding under the “Green Deal for Communities.” However, it has faced many challenges, as would be expected in a large-scale energy efficiency scheme. The Warm Up Bristol scheme was designed to align with the national “Green Deal” for energy efficiency. In July 2015, the UK government announced that funding to the Green Deal finance company would be discontinued,  although the Warm Up Bristol scheme itself is ongoing despite this challenge. The council initially contracted a single company, Climate Energy, to deliver the programme. Climate Energy ceased to trade in October 2015, following the government announcement of cuts to the Feed in Tariff for solar. Bristol City Council addressed this by taking responsibility for the completion of the remaining work to be delivered. This included stepping into Climate Energy’s contracts with local builders. The council held household events and open discussions with the community group called Bristol Energy Network about the next steps.[3] The Warm Up Bristol scheme was re-launched, and is currently offering support to households for energy efficiency of their homes, but with reduced financial support due to cuts in availability of grants and loans from the central government. This is an important role for the council to play, as navigating the complexity of domestic retrofit, including quality aspects, without help can be too difficult for many households.

Bristol City Council solar PV

A large part of the original ELENA proposal from Bristol City Council included solar PV installations on city-owned properties. In 2010, when the ELENA project was first agreed by Bristol City Council, this was a financially attractive option, which would support the leverage of additional funds that ELENA required. However, Feed in Tariff levels for solar have repeatedly been reduced by central government, and the final ELENA plan included less solar PV than originally intended. During this time, community energy groups were being set up to invest in renewable energy, as described in the following section, with eventual collaboration between the two.

Bristol Energy Company

The Bristol Energy Company was set up in 2015. It is the second fully licensed energy company in the UK that is wholly owned by a local authority, closely following Nottingham’s Robin Hood Energy. In the UK, the energy system is fully privatized. The transmission and distribution networks are operated by private, for-profit regulated monopoly companies at the national and regional levels, generation is a competitive market dominated by 10 companies, and supply, the retail part of the market, is competitive and dominated by six private companies. Entry into the supply market is challenging due to complex energy industry rules, and a business model based on maximising market share. Launching a supply company is therefore a large investment and a risk for the local authority. The Bristol Energy Company has a mission to offer fair and transparent tariffs; reinvest in local communities; and support and invest in local renewables.

Community energy sector in Bristol

In addition to very pro-active local government, Bristol has a very active community energy sector. The Bristol Energy Network (BEN) is an umbrella organisation that supports its member groups in sharing information and skills and developing their projects. It was founded in 2009, by two neighbourhood community energy groups, the Easton Energy Group and Transition Montpellier (a group coming out of the Transition Towns movement), with the aim of sharing resources and knowledge between neighbourhood energy groups. BEN now has 25 member groups. These include 13 neighbourhood community groups, nine city-wide community groups, and three advice agencies. In 2013, BEN coordinated the participatory writing of a Community Strategy for Energy  in Bristol. This was an open, multi-author process, coordinated by BEN members who also have roles in the council, at the Centre for Sustainable Energy, and in various community energy groups. This strategy was endorsed by then-elected Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson.

The number and diversity of groups involved in BEN is its richness, but it can also be confusing as there are so many groups, which sometimes compete with each other when they could collaborate. As mentioned in the introduction, the people involved are mainly white, male, and highly educated professionals, although this has been shifting over the past two to three years.

Easton Energy Group

The Easton Energy Group is a neighbourhood group in central-east Bristol, which describes itself as a “community group to help individuals reduce energy use in the home organised by a group of Easton residents who are working in the energy and sustainability field.” It has been involved in a number of projects over the years, including using thermal imaging to help householders visualise heat losses from houses, interseasonal heat storage using boreholes in a park next to a community centre, and partnering with Bristol City Council on the local delivery of their Warm Up Bristol scheme, discussed in more detail below. This is one of the most active neighbourhood energy groups in the city, and unlike other groups has paid members of staff using project funding when this is available.

Bristol Green Doors

Bristol Green Doors “runs educational events to inspire, encourage and enable domestic green refurbishment in our community and support others to do the same.” This is primarily in the form of open home weekends, where people who have carried out retrofit open their homes to the public, and share their experience. Being able to ask questions to people who have gone through the retrofit process, hear the good, the bad and the ugly, and see and feel what the finished project or work in progress looks like, makes energy efficient refurbishment less intimidating. The opportunity to look inside other people’s houses also attracts visitors who are curious. Bristol Green Doors also runs a website with case studies of the member households who have opened their homes to the public. The success of Bristol Green Doors led the government to support the development of a national network of Green Open Homes,  which Bristol Green Doors advised on.

Renewable energy investment co-operatives

The Bristol Energy Co-operative was set up in 2010-2011, to facilitate community investment in renewable energy, through the use of community share offers. The first share offer in 2011 raised £130,000 invested in solar panels on the roofs of three community buildings. The latest share offer raised a total of £10 million, including bank and social finance loans, and invested in two large solar farms, as well as solar community roof installations. The Bristol Power Co-operative was set up along similar lines shortly afterward, with a greater focus on domestic installations. Both have business models that have relied on the Feed in Tariff for solar PV, and like many community energy investment projects around the country they are now having to seek new business models for future activities. One possible way forward could be to enter into the supply market, and the Bristol Energy Co-operative is considering a partnership with Mongoose Energy, which is launching a new community energy supply business.

Local energy: collaboration, frustrations and perspectives

The relationships between organisations and individuals in Bristol’s community energy sector are often mutually supportive, but not always smooth. In the same way, there are challenges in the relationship between the community energy sector and the city council, as well as experiences of successful collaboration.

State vs community

One challenge is that of different perspectives. The community energy sector allows local people to financially benefit, keeping the income local, and support the development of energy democracy in Bristol, with a new opportunity for participation in a more renewables-based energy system. The opportunity for meaningful action is important to allow people to face the reality of the potentially overwhelming threat of climate change. On the other hand, the community energy sector is made up of relatively privileged and entitled individuals, who nominate themselves, and are not accountable to the breadth of the population of the city. The city council, conversely, is accountable to the electorate of the city. It also has statutory duties to all residents, and provides social services for many who need them. When the city council, rather than a community energy co-operative, invests in renewable energy generation, it could be argued that income going directly to the council would be used for general services for those who need it most, rather than going to the pockets of the select few who were wealthy enough to invest in a community share offer. This is the perennial dilemma between state public ownership and self-reliant community activity.

The frustrations of hierarchies

People involved in the community energy sector in Bristol are sometimes frustrated that the city council does not include them as equal partners in strategic discussions about the future of Bristol’s energy, or open the door to direct accountability for the Bristol Energy Company along the lines described by Switched on London. At the same time, Bristol City Council officers have at times been frustrated not to be seen as the key organisation for development of local infrastructure, and treated more equally by central government. The frustrations of hierarchy repeat themselves all the way up the chain.

Warm Up Bristol collaboration

There has been successful collaboration between the city council and community energy groups. The Warm Up Bristol retrofit project developed by the city council included a collaboration with the Easton Energy Group. The Easton neighbourhood was included in the Green Deal for Communities funding. Here, the scheme included the development of a council-owned showhome – a typical Victorian terraced house in the area, which was refurbished to a high standard of energy efficiency by the Warm up Bristol scheme. The Easton Energy Group hosted events in the showhome, and welcomed visitors during opening hours. There was also a street competition, where residents who were able to recruit enough of their neighbours could benefit from free street-based external wall insulation. The Easton Energy Group promoted this competition, and the Warm Up Bristol scheme overall.

Community investment in solar power

Investment in solar panels on council and publicly owned properties was one of the core activities of the ELENA project. Initially, the council planned to invest directly, but when the Feed in Tariff for solar dropped, many of the smaller projects became less financially viable. The Bristol Energy Co-operative was keen to invest in solar on the roofs of council-owned community buildings, and one of the buildings in the first share offer in 2011 was council-owned. However, this arrangement was negotiated quickly under pressure from dropping Feed In Tariffs, and without a clear formalised process. In 2014, a competition was launched by Bristol City Council for community investment in solar panels on the roofs of selected community buildings.  This was won by the Bristol Energy Co-operative, and several of these buildings were included in the co-operative’s second and third share offers.

The Bristol Energy Co-operative’s third share offer also included a solar farm development, which involved strong collaboration with the city council. This is a site in the Lawrence Weston neighbourhood of Bristol, on land owned by Bristol City Council. Bristol City Council obtained planning permission for the site and addressed grid constraints, and invited the Bristol Energy Co-operative to finance and operate the 4.2 MW scheme. The Bristol Energy Co-operative worked in partnership with neighbourhood group Ambition Lawrence Weston, and raised finance through a combination of community shares and bonds, and commercial loans, as well as a loan from Bristol City Council.

Bristol Community Energy Fund

The Bristol Community Energy Fund was set up using grant funding that Bristol City Council obtained from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.[4]The Bristol Energy Network worked with Bristol City Council to develop a grant programme that supports activities by local people with one of the following aims:

  • To reduce their energy use (e.g. their use of electricity or gas)
  • To move toward cleaner renewable sources of energy
  • To take measures that ensure they can afford to meet their energy needs

Applications from projects led by those communities who are most affected by energy issues, such as fuel poverty, or those groups who are underrepresented in the energy movement (e.g. older people; disabled people; Black, minority ethnic and migrant communities) are prioritised.

Strong efforts were made to ensure that the grants panel includes representatives of diverse groups. It has 10 members, of which seven are women, and three are from Black, minority ethnic and migrant backgrounds, and one works on disability rights.

The fund is a strong boost to the community energy sector, but it has also led to some tensions, as is often the case when money is available. Some existing community energy groups are frustrated that the fund is prioritising breadth of participation, rather than ongoing support for approaches that have proven effective over the past few years. Others feel that the fund does not go far enough in fostering really diverse participation in community energy. The fund has supported 12 projects to date, and distributed £53,000 worth of grant funding. It will soon launch a loan offer to complement the grant fund.

Learning points

There are many pro-active and committed individuals and organisations working for sustainable local energy in Bristol, who sometimes collaborate and sometimes compete. These efforts are sometimes supported and sometimes frustrated by national government policies.

The Bristol Energy Company, as the second wholly owned municipal energy supply company in the UK, presents a huge opportunity for a more democratic, accountable approach to energy in the city. This is particularly the case given the strong community energy sector. Opportunities include collaboration with the Bristol Energy Co-operative and similar organisations by providing energy supply to its members or by purchasing generated renewable electricity; and greater transparency and open communication with the citizens of Bristol, which could be facilitated through the Bristol Energy Network. There is also potential for increasing the democratic accountability and participation in the company through community representation on the board, perhaps taking inspiration from the democratic model proposed by the Switched on London campaign, where board representation includes workers and consumers.

At the same time, the vibrant local energy ecosystem of Bristol needs to become more diverse if it is to effectively represent the people of the city. Efforts to reach beyond the ‘white middle class male’ demographic are starting to be effective, but still face challenges both internally and externally, and could be better resourced and valued. This could both strengthen the community energy sector itself, and its position in relation to Bristol City Council, opening the door to deeper and more trusting collaboration for energy democracy.

There are also lessons in Bristol that are valuable for other parts of the UK and internationally, and it is important that the UK government increases its support for energy efficiency projects, to build on this learning and carry out this important infrastructure investment.[5]

[1] Citywide Energy Study: https://www.cse.org.uk/downloads/reports-and-publications/policy/planning/Bristol_Citywide_Sustainable_Energy_Study.pdf

[2] Energy services guide: https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/33411/Energy_Service_Guide.pdf/fa87201b-0029-406e-a8b7-d661a74af4a8

[3] http://bristolenergynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/9th-November-Warm-Up-Bristol-minutes-Bristol-Energy-Network-11.pdf

[4] The Department of Energy and Climate change was founded in 2008, and was responsible for energy policy until late 2016, at which point energy and climate functions were separated, and responsibility for energy policy was moved to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

[5] http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/wwf_heat_report_summary_web.pdf?_ga=1.223494811.1661905323.1413989380


Emilia Melville is a Research Engineer at BuroHappold Engineering and the University of Surrey, with thanks to EPSRC and BuroHappold Engineering for funding the research.

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