Low Carbon Heat & Rural Fuel Poverty: Lessons from across Europe

Low carbon heat – is there an opportunity for community energy?

Rural communities have higher fuel poverty levels due to low incomes and expensive heating fuels. Some European countries with more low carbon heat take-up have lower fuel poverty levels than the UK.

Our project, funded by the Eaga Charitable Trust, provided a comparative analysis between the UK and other countries to identify drivers and barriers affecting take-up. The findings from the study, completed in November 2017, can be broadly categorised by two key areas, that of policy and of practice, therefore we have produced a suite of resources targeted towards the information needs of specific audiences.

The opportunities and barriers for the delivery of low carbon heat projects to tackle fuel poverty in rural communities across the UK are highlighted in the report below from research to explore opportunities for rural community energy groups across the county to embrace low carbon heat technologies and provide affordable heating for all. Part of the research involved looking at best case examples from across Europe and investigating the barriers and policy issues that are preventing a wider take up of low carbon heating solutions.

Currently, compared to many EU member states, the UK is seriously lagging on progress to adopt low carbon and renewable energy technologies; while the general public are more familiar with renewable electricity generation from Solar Photovoltaics and on-shore and off-shore wind, producing heat from renewable sources has yet to capture the public’s imagination.

Elsewhere in Europe using renewable energy for heat is a common solution to both heating and cooling. The research gathered together a number of case studies from across Europe and the UK to illustrate best practice. The final report notes that:

  • A commitment to decentralised policy and decision making in key locations such as Austria, Germany, Finland and Denmark, has facilitated a flourishing sector in small scale low carbon heat delivery and has driven community led initiatives in rural areas.
  • Stable policies, financing mechanisms, grant and subsidy incentives and a cultural propensity to make use of linkages between rural employment and natural resources, have been key to success in low carbon deployment.
  • Smaller scale projects emerging in rural areas are making use of forestry, agriculture, waste, solar and wind resources to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, decrease energy costs and increase the sustainability of their communities.
  • In Germany and Austria the concept of the ‘Bioenergy Village’ has been a key driver for the rural development of low carbon heat, with a significant carbon emission reductions from over half to 97% achieved.

The lessons the project has gathered are underpinned by a growing recognition of the role of low carbon heat as a solution to rising energy costs, with the potential to bring benefits to address fuel poverty, particularly in rural areas where the depth of fuel poverty is greater. The potential for heat networks to reduce heating costs is recognised in UK policy, with a recent shift in policy recognising the potential for heat networks as part of community energy schemes in less populated areas. The research concluded that opportunities can be created if a number of strategic actions are taken:

  • Currently there is a gap that can be filled by local government taking a leading role, raising confidence and awareness, as well as backing financial support to facilitate rural low carbon heat in the UK.
  • More effective finance mechanisms are needed, along with long term funding mechanisms and subsidies, to provide security and encourage investment and innovation that will decrease the costs of renewable and low carbon technologies in the longer term.
  • Member States with the highest levels of deployment of low carbon heat have used carbon taxation as a key policy tool, to encourage the growth of low carbon energy markets.

Although many rural, community-led projects are still heavily reliant on grant funding to make them economically viable, projects in Germany and Austria illustrate the effectiveness of building relationships between devolved administrations, community and voluntary organisations, energy companies, industries and other local actors such as farmers and strategic land owners. Projects are often supported by national finance companies who are willing to invest in small scale low carbon heat projects that, due to these proven and effective relationships, are no longer perceived to be high risk.

The potential links that are evident in those countries with low fuel poverty levels and high deployment of low carbon heat, represents an opportunity to learn and apply lessons in the UK. Community energy offers an opportunity for developing low carbon heat in rural areas, but it will require a greater devolution of powers to local authorities and regional energy agencies to bridge the gap between national targets and local practice.