There has been a marked rise in renewable community energy initiatives since 2008, particularly in Europe – in the UK alone, at least 5,000 community groups have explored the opportunity in the last six years. These communities – coalitions of consumer groups, businesses, local governments or simply a group of neighbours – are mobilising around the generation and distribution of their own energy, with promising results. What is now needed is for utilities to join the movement to make community energy an efficient and rewarding energy proposition.

Sustainability is, of course, a key driver for the exploration of community energy, as is the reliability of supply. However, as the recent research study, 'Power to the People', by energy load management group OMNETRIC highlights, the primary goal is economic: people want to secure a more affordable energy supply and aspire to bring the jobs and profits generated through energy generation and distribution back home.

Analysis by OMNETRIC shows that the cost savings from a community energy scheme could be enough to prompt consumers to make the switch today. It is estimated that a single household could make a one-off saving of over £3,000 (nearly $4,000) from a community energy scheme, compared to going it alone (based on modelling that looks at the impacts of combined rooftop, solar and storage in a region such as San Diego, California), while also effectively hedging against rises in energy prices.

As a result of this potential, technical competence within communities is on the rise and some communities are attracting experienced professionals from the energy sector to make the new energy economy a reality. However, while consumers’ enthusiasm for community energy is growing, a lack of in-depth technology and business knowledge has held some energy schemes back. The reality is that more support is needed if community energy schemes are to live up to their potential.

One source of such support is from the traditional utility providers. There is a pressing need for communities to benefit from the expertise and know-how from utility providers to realise their aspirations. The challenge is that some utilities might view community energy as a threat to their business models. However, utilities should be changing the way they look at community energy initiatives so they too can benefit from the opportunities on offer.

To encourage support of community energy initiatives, OMNETRIC’s recently published paper on community energy proposes a role for utilities as the Community Energy Platform Provider. In this role, utilities can develop and package a suite of solutions for communities, in a one-to-many model, designed to enable their active participation in energy distribution while sustaining a connection to the grid. Additionally, by getting closer, embracing and investing in community energy initiatives, utilities can stay close to this evolving market dynamic.

The declining cost of renewable energy generation, coupled with related technology advancements and availability is contributing to a consumer mind shift: energy supply is no longer the reserve of the traditional players. Now, with a groundswell of new stakeholders, utilities would do well to consider ways they could both contribute to and profit from community energy, helping to shape the new energy economy.