Make Renewables a Charitable Purpose and Reap a Community Windfall

There’s been a lot of attention paid to community owned renewables in Scotland, with the Dancing Ladies of Gigha generating power and saving money for the community. Many other mainland communities have also been investing in power. Sadly, none so far has been urban. This is partly because of difficulties with the Castlemilk project in Glasgow.

Wind power may become the most significant funding stream for community action in the next 20 years. Where communities are not in receipt of amenity payments from commercial wind turbines, they’ll be seeking to build their own.

The community group I’m involved in – PEDAL -> Portobello Transition Town is currently working on a project for Portobello Promenade. And here lies another problem with community renewables. The process is long, drawn out and expensive. Just to get the turbine proposal through the planning process is likely to cost around £70,000. We have committed as a group to holding a community ballot on whether the turbine should go ahead and ensuring the money generated is used for community benefit.

We’re also currently looking at becoming a charity. Once we’ve got the turbine and become a charity we’ll need to create a subsidiary company which owns the turbine and passes any surplus to PEDAL, which could then be put to community use.

That’s a pretty complex process. But it could be solved at a stroke if the government were to add generation of renewable energy by community organisations to the list of charitable purposes. This would mean there was no need to set up a subsidiary company (a bureaucratic headache in itself) and be liable for more VAT and corporation tax on the earnings.

The government should also streamline the planning process for community owned projects where a ballot is needed. It seems daft to have projects planned by and for the community subjected to the same processes as potentially predatory private developments. Removing some of the obligations for community consultation would seem to be a sensible start to this process.

It’s also probably the time to add a more general provision for sustainable development to the charitable purposes. Several groups have had difficulty registering as charities where their sole charitable purpose has been “the advancement of environmental protection or improvement” and their main aim has been dealing with climate change. Obviously the outdated wording of this purpose should be updated to include sustainable development.

The government could also ensure that local authorities and other public agencies, like the NHS, make roof-space available so communities can use this to generate solar electricity.

With the sort of income that renewables can produce for communities, there will be a very real shift in the power to fund local activities. This can only be a good thing for the many community groups that have to rely on the vagaries of Council funding. Community activists will be the obvious beneficiaries of this windfall.

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