Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Community-owned renewable energy co-ops see a sustainable future

Baywind Community Energy
Baywind Community Energy

As onshore windfarms attract more opponents, support increases for community-owned renewable energy schemes that are managed co-operatively.

In Whitby, N. Yorkshire, a community-owned hydro-power scheme is nearing completion following the award of a £450,000 contract to a local construction company, JN Bentley Ltd., to design and install the turbine.

The scheme is exemplary not just because of its community status but because of the use of local firms and its co-operative structure, which all contribute to make it more sustainable as well as renewable.

The three aspects of sustainability are social, economic and environmental. The collective importance of these characteristics is often forgotten in the pursuit of renewable energy schemes that are imposed on communities by foreign-owned firms, where locals receive few economic benefits, and which thereby attract opposition.

A development meeting was held in London last night by industry participants, media players and a climate scientist with a view to amplifying the attraction of community schemes to shift Government policy, in the light of the uncertainty surrounding funding through Feed-in Tariffs for community schemes.

The slashing of the tariff has resulted in 40% of funding being returned to investors in one co-operatively-run community scheme, the Leominster Community Solar Co-Operative (LCSC), rather than being invested in another local scheme and the cancelling or mothballing of hundreds more schemes.

Eithne George of LCSC said that the LCSC's success in raising funds and getting local support "serves to illustrate how popular community solar initiatives like this are. It addresses issues around planning as well as providing the local community with a source of its own power.

“We hope the Government take note of the fact that other communities are being deprived of such schemes because of the unpredictability of the system, not because of lack of interest."

Last week, civil society groups including the National Trust, CPRE, Womens' Institutes and Church of England called for more government support of community-owned green energy projects, worried that many communities across the UK are missing out on the chance to produce their own renewable energy, improve their local economy and help the UK reach its low carbon objectives.

Ruth Bond, Chair of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, said: “We see community energy as people working together, not having schemes imposed on them. This is a great opportunity for our 7,000 WIs across the UK to tackle climate change and leave a legacy for the next generation.”

David Shreeve, the Church of England's national environment adviser added that the Church of England "fully supports community energy projects as a way of working together to provide a clean, secure energy supply and to help heat and electricity become more sustainable for all”.

Farm energy – and not just wind farms

Tonight's meeting is being led by organic farmer, Green Party activist and eco-entrepreneur Adam Twine, who has a track record in tackling climate change at a community level having initiated and delivered a cooperative-owned 6.5MW wind farm.
Twine sees the community value of co-operatively run schemes, selling his farm produce to the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-operative and to the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative.

Later this month, Twine is launching a Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, to show other farmers what they can do to save energy on their farms and the benefits that will have on their businesses.

The launch event on the 27th February will also be a practical session where delegates will be shown how to calculate a simple carbon budget for their own farm and look at how that compares to other farms using a carbon calculator developed by the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit.

“We all know that we live in challenging times both for our businesses and also beyond the farm gate," Adam Twine, said. "This conference and the practical workshops are for busy farmers who know that energy saving and carbon emissions are probably important, or might be in the future, but struggle to find the time to do anything about them."

Also involved in the initiative are National Farmers Union chief advisor on renewable energy and climate change, Jonathan Scurlock, and chairman of Natural England, Poul Christensen.

Co-operative enterprise

Back in Yorkshire, it is a community co-operative, Esk Energy (Yorkshire) Limited that is running the hydro-electric project.

It worked with The Co-operative Enterprise Hub to raise funds through a community share issue last year.

Michael Fairclough, The Co-operative’s Head of Community and Co-operative Investment, said: “The co-operative business model gives people a say in 
how services are delivered and it is a model that is being increasingly adopted.

"As more and more people rediscover the benefits of self-help and mutual ownership, the co-operative alternative will, without doubt, play an increasing part in fostering future enterprise – contributing to the rebuilding of a more balanced and sustainable UK economy.”

It is expected that the turbine's installation will start in April and that it will begin to generate almost 200,000kWh a year of electricity in the summer, and cut carbon emissions by 1,500 tonnes during its first 20 years.

Surplus income from the scheme will be ploughed into educational and further carbon reduction initiatives, including a grant system towards the installation of solar, wind and water energy generating systems in the Esk Valley; programmes for education providers, and green energy apprenticeships.

Following Environment Agency guidelines, the turbine is a single Archimedean screw designs that allows fish to pass.

Colin Mather, a retired civil engineer himself and Chair of Esk Valley Community Energy Group, said: “We’d like to thank all those who have helped us reach this remarkable milestone - our shareholders, The Co-operative Enterprise Hub, North York Moors National Park Authority, North Yorkshire County Council, CO2Sense, Key Fund and, Naturesave.”

Shares can still be purchased in the green energy scheme from as little as £250 (up to a maximum of £20,000).

The Co-operative Enterprise Hub has committed an additional £6m (between 2012-14) to enable it to deliver free advice and guidance to create and grow sustainable member-owned enterprises across the UK.

The Co-operative Energy Challenge

The Co-operative has also just announced the Co-operative Energy Challenge, which aims to provide financial backing and support, to a select group of communities across the UK to help them develop significant renewable energy projects.

Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative, said: "Our aim is to stimulate an energy revolution that will enable communities up and down the country to benefit from community renewable projects.

"If you look at other countries such as Germany it is clear that the relationship between people and energy is completely different than it is in the UK. We want to change it from one where people are at the mercy of large profit-making energy providers to one where they control, generate and benefit from their own energy supply."

To be delivered by the Bristol-based Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), the programme will oversee development of up to eight projects such as wind farms, anaerobic digesters, biomass district heating schemes and hydropower stations.

Both the strength of local opposition to Big Wind projects and communities' enthusiasm for co-operatively-run schemes, two sides of the same coin, together highlight the immense amount of energy in local communities that is potentially available to be tapped, in order to generate truly sustainable energy.

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