The renewable energy sector has welcomed government plans to allow councils to sell micro-generated electricity to the grid.
The move by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to end the ban on local authorities selling surplus power is expected to encourage more councils to invest in renewable electricity projects.
The policy takes advantage of the feed-in tariffs system that came into effect in April 2010, which pays individuals and organisations for electricity they generate from renewable sources.
The government estimates that authorities in England and Wales could earn up to £100m through the scheme.
‘The feed-in tariffs provide a massive incentive for councils to roll out technology and effectively become electricity generators,’ Stuart Pocock, technical director for the Renewable Energy Association (REA), told The Engineer.
‘There is also the potential for local authorities to use future feed-in tariff income to raise a significant amount of capital.’
Only 0.01 per cent of electricity in England is currently generated by local-authority-owned renewables. In Germany, the equivalent figure is 100 times higher.
‘Councils have not started generating a great deal of energy so far,’ said Pocock. ‘Before the feed-in tariffs, it was driven by the low-carbon building programme and restricted by grant availability.’
The new regulations, which come into force from 18 August, affect all authorities in Britain but not Northern Ireland.
‘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,’ he said in a statement.
‘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.’
Local authorities already hoping to cash-in on the scheme include Woking in Surrey, and Bristol, where the council is planning to spend up to £9m on wind turbines and has invested £3m in biomass boilers run on wood waste from parks and street trees.
Bristol City Council cabinet member Gary Hopkins said: ‘This is very welcome news and means that we can move ahead with our turbine project as planned.
‘We also have a whole series of small-scale plans, including encouraging energy generation at schools, which we can now progress as a result of this excellent announcement.’
The feed-in tariffs system pays different amounts for different sources of electricity according to how much of an incentive is needed to stimulate each sector, with solar energy receiving the most cash.
‘PV [photovoltaic] is the quickest and easiest way to generate electricity, and it’s the area we’ve seen most take up in private homes,’ said Pocock.
‘But wind turbines, especially in rural and coastal locations, could also be an excellent revenue generator for local councils. It will be interesting to see how their local planning offices respond.
‘Councils may also be interested in anaerobic digestion (AD), as they often have large amounts of waste they need to get rid of. However, the current feed-in tariffs don’t incentivise small-scale AD plants, so we hope these will be reset in the autumn.’
Councils can currently put any renewable electricity they generate to local use and benefit from the associated feed-in tariff for projects smaller than 5MW.
But they are restricted from selling any excess electricity into the grid (other than that generated from combined heat and power).
The original rules were put in place in 1976, and amended in 1989, to ensure the transfer of the electricity industry to the private sector.
Now the government says it wants to recognise the importance of small-scale renewables in the shift to low-carbon generation.
Tom Foulkes, director-general of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), said: ‘Lifting this ban will help drive forward essential renewable energy projects in the UK, giving local authorities an incentive to invest in local projects.
‘While a focus on large-scale energy projects is essential, smaller community projects also have an important role to play in the UK’s future energy mix.’