The government's ‘Powering Up Britain’: regurgitating existing policies and ignoring householders and communities


Written by Jayne Carrick of the South Yorkshire Sustainability Centre at Sheffield University, with Duncan Law of CEE.

The UK has a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero and, as from 30 March, it also has a new energy strategy. However, ‘Powering Up Britain’ provides little for householders dealing with spiralling energy bills. There is even less for supporters of community energy.

 ‘Powering Up Britain’

 ‘Powering Up Britain’ is an attempt to upgrade the ‘Net Zero Strategy’, which was deemed inadequate and unlawful by the High Court. In a case brought by Client Earth, the High Court ruled that the Net Zero Strategy failed to show how the UK would achieve legally binding emissions targets and demanded the Government revise its plans by 31 March 2023. The response, Powering Up Britain, was published the day before that deadline.

The new strategy has received mixed responses. Some have welcomed the new strategy. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said that ‘Powering Up Britain’ represents “an important step towards the UK’s transition to net zero and greater energy security”.

However, there have been widespread criticisms that the plans represent a rehash of previous proposals, do not provide any new funding, and place too much reliance on unproven and controversial Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technology. 

Crucially, many think the plans still don't go far enough to achieve the Government’s own emissions targets. Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth, called the plan “half-baked, half-hearted and dangerously lacking ambition” and Kathryn Brown, Wildlife Trusts said it “goes no further towards a balanced set of policies to address climate change”. The Financial Times stated that the plan shows “the government has still not woken up to the scale of the effort required”. 

There are even signs that campaigners are ready to take the government back to court.

For householders

Green Party MP, Caroline Lucus, claims that “the greenest thing about the government's ‘Green Day’ plan is the recycling of already announced ideas”. A glance at the policies to help householders reduce their emissions supports this assertion. 

The Great British Insulation Scheme is launched, which promises to “support over 300,000 households to improve their energy efficiency”. But merely represents the latest phase of the Energy Company Obligation Scheme that has operated since 2013. 

The deadline of the existing Boiler Upgrade Scheme has been extended. Householders now have until 2028 to claim grant funding to replace their fossil fuelled boiler with a heat pump or biomass boiler. 

The extension of the claims deadline is symptomatic of the slow uptake of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme.  Launched in April 2022, the scheme aimed to help 90,000 households in 3 years. However, in the first 11 months less than 13,000 vouchers have been issued. Greenpeace claims that poor uptake of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme shows that the scheme is “failing” and calls for a “more rounded strategy…. including skills package” to enable householders to benefit from low carbon heating. 

As well as raising awareness about the help available, more detail is needed to enable people to benefit from opportunities to improve insulation and upgrade domestic boilers. 

For community energy

There is even less in the plan for community energy. They say, “government has laid out our current support for community energy in the Net Zero Strategy and the Net Zero Growth Plan, and we do not believe a separate community energy strategy would provide any additional value, at this time.” As Community Energy England pointed out at the time it offered no plan for community energy beyond reviving the Community Energy Contact Group.

All mentions of ‘community energy’ in the plan are limited to vague statements about the government continuing to engage with stakeholders via an existing Community Energy Contact Group and Local Net Zero Hubs. 

But none of this is new. The Community Energy Contact Group (CECG) was set up in 2011 by Greg Barker, then a Minister for the Department for Energy and Climate Change, as “an informal advisory group on community energy”. The CECG has been meeting since June 2022. However a 2 hour quarterly meeting is unlikely to be enough to “ turbocharge community energy” as Chris Skidmore MP recommended in the government commissioned Net Zero Review

The Local Net Zero Hubs, previously known as Local Energy Hubs, were set up in the Clean Growth Strategy 2017 - now replaced by ‘Powering Up Britain’. Previously the Hubs administered the Rural Community Energy Fund which ended in March 2022 with no replacement.

The plan also mentions “through our Local Net Zero Hubs we are supporting local authorities and community energy groups to work together, this includes funding a pilot programme which provides local authorities with direct support to develop community-led energy groups and projects.” This refers to the successful Pathways project run by Community Energy South, which  creates new community energy organisations working in collaboration with their local authorities, including on energy efficiency. But many still find it impossibly challenging to initiate generation projects to ensure long term viability.

To be fair, there are some indirect references to community energy. If we accept the most loose definition of community energy, which includes a group sharing benefits of an energy scheme, ‘Powering Up Britain’ does commit to developing guidance on how benefits are allocated to communities hosting transmission network infrastructure. But again this exposes the government’s commitment to big business and supply side interventions, rather than genuinely promoting its own concept of Smart Local Energy Systems (including community energy), which would reduce the need to overbuild the transmission network.

However, more cynically, we could say that the government has merely recognised that they will have to speak to people that live near to new large infrastructure projects to reduce opposition. There are also scattered references to community engagement in relation to improving the planning process for onshore wind and solar schemes which appears to support this conclusion. 

Supporters of community energy, such as Community Energy England, have long been pointing out the absence of policy for community energy. ‘Powering Up Britain’ will do nothing to allay fears the sector has been abandoned. 

What’s needed

The devil is in the detail, unfortunately for householders and community energy groups there is little detail to get stuck into. 

At a time of high energy bills the Great British Insulation Scheme could provide new insulation to low income and vulnerable households, but Ofgem still doesn't know how it will be implemented. Instead, a consultation on the administration of the scheme is promised, which shows that the scheme has been rushed through and poorly planned (rather than being an opportunity for meaningful public engagement). 

Last year the United States committed to action on climate change and via The Inflation Reduction Act, encouraging huge investments in green industry and infrastructure. Many had also hoped that ‘Powering Up Britain’ could also establish the UK’s position as a world leader on climate change action and green energy. However, the lack of detail and the long-term strategic thinking that is needed to address the climate crisis and increasing energy bills raises the risk of the UK being left behind.

For the government, investing in the growth of community energy would be win, win, win, win… It leverages the existing passion, expertise and entrepreneurial spirit of the thousands of community energy early adopters, mobilises many more millions of committed community finance, to do practical, visible, engaging decarbonisation projects that also bring multiple community benefits. Additionally, as the Climate Change Committee makes clear we won’t achieve net zero without engaging people and communities - so supporting community energy is also existentially important!

This is something that other parties understand. The Labour Party has just committed £1 billion a year in its Local Power Plan, up to £400m a year in low interest revolving loans to community energy and up to £600m a year to local authorities “to build clean power in cities, towns and villages across Britain to boost national energy security and cut energy bills, as we turbocharge our mission for clean power by 2030.” See CEE's news piece on this here

Call to action!

Please Write to your MP to get them advocating to government for support for community energy, including for the Local Electricity Bill clauses in the Energy Bill. Input to relevant consultations. Get involved in CEE’s Working Groups.