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Fermanagh Trust Director Lauri McCusker recently appeared before the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment presenting on the opportunities and potential benefits from community energy including the need to introduce community ownership stakes in commercial renewables in Northern Ireland.
The Fermanagh Trust currently administers a community fund on behalf on behalf of a wind farm developer in County Fermanagh and has previously acted in a consultancy role providing advice to another developer on applications it received for its community funds. These experiences prompted the Trust to explore further the issues surrounding how communities can engage with wind energy and in 2012 they published the report ‘Maximising Community Outcomes from Wind Energy Developments’.
Addressing Committee members, Mr McCusker highlighted that communities are entitled to see significant returns and benefit directly if they host a major renewable energy project.
The Committee heard that active community involvement can help tackle a wide range of issues in relation to fuel poverty, disadvantage and isolation etc. The Fermanagh Trust has taken a leadership role in this development and it is encouraging to see that action is being taken in Northern Ireland. DETI, DOE and DARD launched a joint study, local councils have released protocols for developers and the renewable energy industry has made commitments. However, the issue of community energy has received far greater attention in GB and Northern Europe, it is a relatively new concept here and very much underdeveloped.
Mr McCusker told members “Clearly government is starting to consider the importance of this issue, which is good news because the development of renewable energy not only helps meet ambitious climate change targets but can generate substantial new economic activity if community energy is at the heart of this development. Things are starting to happen, but there is no support system. There must be a coherent vision, target and strategy”.
The appearance before Committee was timely due to today’s publication by the Department of Energy and Climate Change of the UK’s first ever Community Energy Strategy. DETI have been waiting for the release of this strategy to help formulate their action plan for Northern Ireland. The Fermanagh Trust in particular welcomes the Government’s pathway for it to be the norm that new clean energy projects offer the local community the opportunity to buy a stake in the development by 2015. The Trust is also pleased to see the opening of discussions with the EU to allow the Green Investment Bank to invest in the community energy sector, and the formation of working groups to address the barriers being experienced by communities, including accessing the electricity grid and navigating the planning process.