Friday, 4 October 2013

Advocating for Community Renewables, a key component in community-led economic regeneration

by Ian Bright, TRESOC MD

It’s almost 6 years since TRESOC was founded as an Industrial and Provident Society for the profitable generation of renewable energy, by and for the residents of Totnes and the surrounding parishes.  We’ve built up a great team of Directors, Admin Manager, Intern and volunteers, with the professional skills to develop a range of renewable energy projects in community ownership.  We’ve raised £175,000 of share capital from our 500 members for project development and investment and we’re all aware that we’re working with money entrusted to us by our friends & neighbours in the local community.

One of the major difficulties we’ve experienced, along with other community energy groups, is dealing with legislation tailored for the existing electricity generation and distribution network, owned and controlled by a small number of large corporations.  So alongside keeping our members, supporters and the wider public informed of what we’re doing, it’s also important to engage with Government as they seek views on how to encourage growth in the community renewables economy.

As Managing Director of TRESOC I’ve been called to represent TRESOC and the community renewables sector at a number of workshops and events over the past year and I’d like to share some of this with you.  If your boredom threshold is not too low, please read on!

The role and context for community renewables

Communities have an important role to play in increasing the supply of renewable electricity, heat and transport energy to meet 15% of UK energy demand by 2020.   It’s a huge increase over current levels of renewable energy supply and requires a very different pattern of energy generation from large centralised fossil fuel and nuclear plant. 

Realisation of this level of renewable energy production involves a variety of technologies with large numbers of small scale power generation plant, widely distributed in every city, town, village and parish.

Local community ownership, in whole or in partnership, is a major factor influencing acceptability of all forms of renewable energy.  It’s a very different experience to look at a wind turbine if it is putting money in your pocket, rather than simply adding to the profits of a large corporation.  All over the country, people of all ages and walks of life are putting in time, expertise and their money to form community energy organisations, taking responsibility for local renewable energy production. The sector has grown from 4.1 MW in 2003 to 58.9 MW capacity in 2013, a growth rate 3 times faster than total UK renewables capacity over the same period.

I’m glad to report that we are now beginning to see recognition and encouragement for this grass roots activity. The Coalition Agreement has always included a commitment to encourage community owned energy schemes, and Government is now actively seeking consultation with the community renewables sector as the Community Energy Strategy is prepared for publication later this year.

Lobbying activities

Before starting on this account, I would like to first reassure our members that TRESOC funds are not used for lobbying activities.    Co-operatives UK has paid TRESOC for my attendance at two of these events.  Sometimes my travel expenses are reimbursed by the meeting organisers and sometimes they’re not.

TRESOC, like most communities, has found that an industrial and provident society (IPS) offers the best legal structure to develop community owned renewables.  Co-operatives UK is the trade body for the IPS sector and I’ve been working closely with them in their lobbying efforts.

In November 2012, I was asked to give a presentation on TRESOC and the Totnes Community Wind Farm at the launch of the Co-operatives UK Report on Community Energy and the Energy Bill.  It was a positive event; most encouraging to hear first-hand accounts of community energy projects from the Brixton to the Scottish Highlands.  The report highlighted the work still to be done in shaping legislation in the Energy Bill to ensure ongoing growth in the community energy sector.

I’m glad to say that a key Co-operatives UK recommendation in the report was recognised in July when the Government tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill to double the size of community renewable energy projects able to access Feed-in Tariffs to 10MW.

This means projects between 5MW and 10MW, which captures most larger community owned schemes, will be able to fund their schemes through the simple method of a fixed Feed-in Tariff, rather than participating in the new ‘contracts for difference’ regime, a complex scheme designed for large commercial developers.

Later in November I was invited to represent the community renewables sector at a Public Policy Exchange Symposium Countdown to the 2020 Sustainability Target: Unlocking the Power of Renewable Energy in Every Local Area.  I gave a 20 minute presentation on TRESOC and then took part in a roundtable discussion with a variety of interests represented; including wind farm developers, consultants, community groups, local authorities and a union representative speaking on behalf of offshore wind farm workers.  DECC officials took part and took notes on engaging with communities and investors to raise awareness of the benefits of renewable energy – much more work to be done in this field!

Then back to London in April for a Dept. of Energy and Climate Change Workshop on Access to Market for Independent Generators, looking at the problems faced by independent renewable generators when securing finance and selling their power, and how the implementation of Government’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR) might address some of the issues we face.  Discussion focused on the impact that EMR – and the ‘Contract for Difference’ – might have on reducing the risks faced by developers, the size of the risks that remain and the impact of this on the ability to raise finance.

One of the key issues for the few community energy representatives present was the sheer complexity of the proposed Contract for Difference legislation and the huge gap between the resources of large developers and community groups to tackle it.  “Legislation Lite” was mentioned as a route to market for small scale community generators but no firm proposals have been put forward – yet!

More recently, I took part in the Guardian Roundtable Debate on the Potential of Community Energy to Power the UK.  The debate was chaired under Chatham House Rules whereby everybody can say what they like, no-one is wrong and the transcript of the debate reports only what was said, not who said it!  The transcript, with list of participants, was published in the Guardian on 13th September.  It was refreshing to take part in such an open forum and encouraging to see a special adviser to Energy Minister Greg Barker MP at the table, confirming Government interest in supporting growth in the community owned renewable energy economy.

On following day I was at an Ofgem Workshop on Community Energy, which took the form of presentations from Ofgem and grid operators on what has been done so far, and what is proposed, to allow small scale community energy practitioners access to the grid.  

The view from the floor, understandably, was that it would have been good to have had a representative of the community renewables sector speaking from the platform.  These events often seem to have more community renewables experts than practitioners, with the latter obviously being too busy struggling to get projects off the starting blocks! 

Nevertheless, it was a very good and welcome start to what will prove to be a long journey for Ofgem and the industry in developing legislation to allow easy access to the grid for community projects.  There was a presentation on “legislation lite” for community renewables but, again, no firm proposals as yet!

The most encouraging meeting so far came when I was privileged to attend the Launch Event of the ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”  introduced by Greg Barker MP in the Houses of Parliament on 10th September.

The Report recognises TRESOC activities in the Section on Central Barriers to Growth of Community Energy, as follows:

"A recent example in support of the effect of local authority attitudes and levels of awareness concerns the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) wind farm. The Totnes Community Wind Farm, a project that Jonathan Porritt of Forum for the Future described as 'one of the most well-designed and well-supported we’ve ever seen,' was denied planning permission early in 2013. The opinion of TRESOC was that 'Local planning authorities don’t yet have the tools to balance parochial concerns against national strategic objectives for deployment of renewable energy.'"

This suggests that greater information and training for decision makers – both planners and councillors – would be beneficial.

Apart from recognising TRESOC’s efforts, the report gives a good overview of the community renewables sector and points to the potential for growth.  The report says that community renewables could grow from current levels of less than 1% of on shore renewables capacity now, to 10% by 2027 

“if certain barriers are dissolved and the appropriate policy framework put in place.”

Partnership working with developers, as enshrined in the Rules of TRESOC, is highlighted as a way forward.  The key role of local authorities in bringing all this to fruition is also recognised with a number of welcome recommendations for partnership working with community groups.  The report is well worth a read, and its recommendations will help shape the Community Energy Strategy, due later this year.

I’m detailed for one more train journey to London on 17th October to attend a Community Energy Planning and Regulation Summit with Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change.  The summit will look at ways to remove obstacles to community energy and I feel privileged to have been invited to attend.  DECC have done a great job over the years in developing a coherent renewable energy strategy to enable the UK to meet its international commitments to source 15% of our energy from renewables by 2020.

And finally, the community renewables sector gets to have its say at the first UK Community Energy Conference  I’m looking forward to this one very much.  It is a struggle for every community renewables group to tackle the hurdles of legislation, planning, law, finance, and engineering, without the resources of major developers.  DEFRA estimates that only one in three community energy projects makes it to completion, so it’s always inspiring to hear first-hand accounts of success against the odds.  And to share experiences, renew old friendships and make new ones in the rapidly growing community renewables sector.

Conclusions and next steps

The main driver for all of this lobbying activity is the realisation that, if the potential of community renewables is to be fully realised, it’s vital that the sector has a voice in Government circles as the fine tuning of legislation in the Energy Bill takes place.  It’s a commonly held view that community renewables are happening despite, rather than because of Government.  Nevertheless, Government is listening and we need to make ourselves heard, now and into the future.  Co-operatives UK is taking a lead role as the trade body for co-operatives and industrial and provident societies delivering community renewable energy.  Their resources are tiny in comparison to the lobbying power of the big six power generators and Government should make allowance for this in their decision making processes if they are serious about continuing growth in the community renewables sector.

The elephant in the room here is the impact of Local Government on the cost, risk and timetable for delivery of community owned renewable energy projects. The Community Renewables Economy Report recognises this and proposes a number of measures for local authorities to engage with the sector, including “pathfinder” local authorities to develop models of co-operation with community groups.  This proposal is heartily welcomed by TRESOC and we believe this would be a great example of the Prime Minister’s “Big Society” concept in action.   

There are considerable opportunities for community organisations to facilitate local community investment in renewable energy projects, generating income on Council owned assets.  There is much work to be done here but the prize is worth the effort. And it has to be recognised that while DECC is doing a great job in promoting community renewables, the Department for Communities and Local Government needs to do more than pay lip service to the UK renewable energy agenda.

While all this is interesting (to me at least!) and necessary, it is challenging for us to justify spending time on lobbying, with a diverse portfolio of renewable energy projects in development.  TRESOC’s success depends on bringing these projects to fruition, which is where the efforts of the TRESOC team are now keenly focussed. We will have more news of projects for you in the very near future.

And finally, on behalf of the whole TRESOC team, I would like to say a big thank you to our members and supporters for all your recent messages of support and encouragement.  It makes it worthwhile to keep pushing the ball uphill!

The Energy Bill and its Impact on Community Energy  

Guardian Roundtable Debate on Community Energy

ResPublica Report on the “Community Renewables Economy”

Monday, 2 September 2013

Buffeted by political winds

This article was first published in August 2013, in the Transition Free Press.  Since it was written, TRESOC's industry partner, Infinergy, has determined that the commercial risk was too high to proceed with Totnes Community Wind Farm and protesters have joined forces to defeat any proposals in the area (with no distinction made as to whether they are private or community applications).  What a tragedy for clean energy in community ownership.

It’s increasingly likely that the UK will miss its European Union energy target, which is to generate 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.  The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) ranks the UK a depressing 25th out of 27 states on progress towards the 2020 green energy target.

This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to the 500 members of Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC).  Nor did the rejection in February of our flagship project – two wind turbines in rural Devon.  We expected our local Planning Committee would reject our proposal.  We just didn't know what reason they would give.  In the end it was “substantial harm” to the view.

Rejection is the fate of most onshore wind farms in planning, but many are passed on appeal because planning inspectors conclude that they meet government policy and that local impact is not as great as councillors fear. 

We did take the bull by the horns with this proposal – 2.3 megawatt (MW) turbines are big. But it was the best site for wind in our area, we had chosen the most cost-effective technology and in theory the government has a policy of encouraging renewables. It seemed like a huge opportunity. 

Unfortunately, in June, the political wind changed direction.  In what felt like a huge blow to the government's vision for renewables and our attempts to power 2,500 households, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, wrote to councils giving them extra reasons to reject wind proposals.  Lib Dem Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, stressed that there would be more financial benefits for communities who accepted wind farms, but the media seemed to revel in the news that additional obstacles were being created.

The Pickles letter doesn’t constitute new legislation, but it will cause confusion. In particular, it cuts across the National Planning Policy Framework, which is in favour of sensibly sited wind farms.  So which should take precedence?  Giving communities the right to have more of a say is a good thing, but it must come with the responsibility to contribute to society's wider, collective needs.  

In the words of the Centre for Sustainable Energy's Chief Executive, Simon Roberts: “Rights without responsibility is a recipe for short-term, self-interested decisions that pass the buck to others; someone or somewhere else will make up for any poorly informed, parochial decisions.  Yet this is what the Government seems to be doing with on-shore wind power; giving local views the upper hand over national interests in planning decisions on onshore wind farm proposals.”

Where does this leave TRESOC?  Buffeted certainly, but we’re not giving up.  Although we have only kilowatts of power production from our other schemes to show for huge amount of energy we’ve used to debate the pros and cons of onshore wind, we are now using knowledge gained and team resilience to move forward with the right solution for our wind project, and build our portfolio using a range of technologies including solar and river/tidal turbines.

It’s not all bad news – lobbying by community energy groups, including TRESOC, can work. In response to feedback on the type of financial incentive that works best for us, DECC is planning to increase the Feed-In Tariff threshold for community projects from 5MW to 10MW to enable larger installations to benefit.

Mostly, however, it's a real struggle to make progress on community renewables in the current political climate.  But if politicians are finding onshore wind complex, one wonders how they'll do when fracking companies start asking to blow up the countryside in search of gas.  Will fracking make wind seem more of a blast?

Jane Brady is Communications Director of TRESOC,, and a member of Transition Town Totnes.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Do we need wind turbines and solar parks? Or should we just use less energy?

A frequent reason quoted for refusing or dismissing any new wind turbine applications, is that if we reduced demand for energy, then there would be no need to build any and we could carry on as we are. Is this a rational claim?

Firstly, there is still a growing need to produce electricity. Our current grid generation is based on fossil fuels, that are finite and becoming increasingly costly to source in the quantities required. So even in a basic economic sense, maintaining our vulnerability to foreign fuel markets that are becoming more and more competitive, is not sensible. What we need is a mix of sources, with a preference for local generation, to improve energy security.

Secondly, reducing demand is thought to be easier and faster than changing how we generate energy. The new Green Deal and ECO funding policy is designed to transform the energy efficiency industry in the UK. Our poor housing state, increasing fuel poverty and spiralling energy bills make these new mechanisms more and more vital. The reduction in costs for consumers and businesses can be a massive incentive and once a few pioneers in a street make the investment (e.g. external wall insulation), others will follow. Delay and media speculation has damaged the industry, but the drivers are growing and it will be only a matter of time until the step change takes hold.
The technologies involved in energy efficiency improvements take days or weeks to install, compared to months, and more likely years, for low carbon energy generation, so it's not a case of one or the other - both need to be tackled. We can't rely on either to deliver the savings required.

We should attempt to ensure is that the energy generation that does occur locally is directly benefiting the community. The best way to provide that is through local ownership - which is what TRESOC amongst the National Trust, Cooperatives UK, forum for the future, and many others, is campaigning for, in the Community energy manifesto. We have been making our voices heard at the heart of government and the signs and sounds from ministers are encouraging. Hopefully a community energy revolution is appearing as a viable alternative to the current stale condition.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Beyond Megawatts - the social significance of community energy

My generation and all of those following have little or no experience of blackouts. When we flick on a switch we expect the electricity to flow, with a lack of knowledge of where and how it is produced. As we become increasingly dependant on media and gadgets this reliance has hit record levels. If you were to ask a teenager today, to spend a few hours without electricity, the majority would be utterly incapable.

Modern life has distanced us from the production and impacts of what we rely on and in doing so, reduced how much we value it. This is particularly true for food, clothing, and electronics - but I want to focus on electricity.

One way to bridge this gap is through local generation. The idea being, if I can see electricity being generated, I am going to value it more. Add in the opportunity for people to not only view electricity being generated, but to directly benefit from it, and you get a sense of why community-scale renewable energy is such a powerful idea. From being dis-empowered uninterested consumers, we become active aware generators of electricity.

My enthusiasm for community energy first took hold when I read this and other scientific papers, but was reignited by a blog a read a few months ago. In short, community energy offers:
  1. A huge opportunity for our local economy to reduce the leakage - money flowing out. Local people benefiting from local resources. 
  2. Improves our awareness of where our electricity comes from. This helps us to value it more and conserve. 
  3. The ability for communities to take responsibility for some of their energy use by generating rather than consuming and contribute to a stronger more resilient society. 

The current centralised national grid relies on a few large power stations, that are a large distance away, to keep the lights on. As our antique infrastructure struggles on, many power stations are being turned off - most recently Didcot coal power station in Oxfordshire. This looming gap of generation has to be filled somehow. Currently the easiest and cheapest option is onshore wind turbines. We want to retain the benefits locally, so Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC) was formed, with Totnes Community wind farm as its flagship project. There are other generation options available and we are actively investigating them.

We want to help build a renewable future at the community scale, which we can be proud of for years to come. There are strong economic and social benefits for us to cherish when we succeed.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Cultivating energy farmers

A 50kW turbine at a height of 30m has eased into the landscape in Rattery. Having sighted the structure from afar I decided to investigate via bicycle, which allowed me to fully appreciate the high elevation of the site. Standing underneath the blades spinning at full capacity there was definitely some sound, but the feeling that me most gripped was of wonder.
The rejected Luscombe Cross turbines are three times the size, but provide 46 times the generation capacity. Yet this turbine has caused no controversy. If we are at all  concerned about the growing generation gap, then surely the wrong decision was made.
Anyhow, the opportunity renewable energy offers to farmers is discussed in a recent article - "Is 2013 the year of the energy farmer?". Rising costs, horrific harvests and unsympathetic banks, made 2012 a year of hardship for many farmers. The need to protect against future energy price rises and a new  financial income stream, leaves the opportunity too good to refuse for many. Indeed there is a growing number of solar parks going through planning locally of some serious size - 13 hectares (5MW) and 15 hectares (8MW) within a few miles of each other near South Brent. A hectare is the area of Trafalgar Square in London or alternatively an International rugby pitch - in other words, big. Undoubtedly these renewable energy installations will have an impact on our countryside, but to deny farmers a rare opportunity in gloomy economic times does seem a little unfair. I maintain my reservations that I stated in a previous post: solar is highly variable (2012 was a bad year for solar); provides little or no energy in winter and at night, when we use most; and is still expensive and carbon intensive compared with other forms. However it will surely form part of a diverse set of renewable energy technologies that we need urgently. Furthermore, the two large solar parks in question, offer no opportunity for local ownership, and therefore a much lower proportion of the financial benefits. This is in direct contrast to the model that Totnes Renewable SOCiety (TRESOC) and the Community energy coalition is striving to publicise and celebrate - local people finding resources and sharing the benefits with local investors.
There is space for all scales of renewable energy to play their part in securing a renewable future locally. Farmers can help cultivate a renewable future for all.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Legacy or an historic view?

What will be the legacy we leave for our children, and our children's children?
We normally consider our legacy towards the end of our lives, but why not reflect continually throughout our existence? 
When we look down the trail of lives, will we be proud?

The Children's fire is an idea that I came across recently thanks to those at Embercombe. It states that no law or action can be taken that may harm the children (now and in the future). How would this impact the way you live your life and the decisions you make? What kind of society would not have this idea embedded at the heart of decision-making? 

When we evaluate the Landscapes officer report for Totnes community wind farm, particularly the huge value given to maintaining the view from sites of history and heritage, confusion sets in. We assume that conserving these views is a duty that must be upheld for future generations at all cost. Would your children prefer an historic view over a secure source of renewable energy? Will these views help keep their lights on for many years to come?  

I don't have the answers, but what I do believe is that we should make decisions with our children's rights in much higher regard. There is no doubt that the conservation of local history is an important task, but it must be set within the current context and with future needs in mind.

Totnes community wind farm offers us the opportunity to create a legacy to be proud of - that invests in our future and is part of the remedy for one of the most sinister diseases in modern life - myopia - also known as short-sightedness. 
"Children are one third of the population and all of our future", Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Dividing communities or taking responsibility?

There are two broad definitions of community:
  • a geographically-based community
  • and a community of interest.
The contentious nature of onshore wind turbines means that the they are often blamed for dividing  geographic communities. In the case of our development - Totnes Community Wind Farm - the opposition often seek to drive a wedge between Totnes and the parishes Harberton/ Harbertonford  - where the turbines will reside.

If the parishes of Harberton and Harbertonford were independent, the argument would have some justification. However, we are living in an increasingly inter-connected society, and therefore we are  reliant on other communities for our high standard of life. In energy terms, we impose the impact of living next to nuclear power stations, pylons, gas turbines, refineries, coal mines onto to other communities to maintain the status quo. Is this a fair imposition? We don't question it, because it is so embedded as acceptable in our society. Our addiction to the existing system, means that we ignore these inequalities - we forget the current and future victims, that may suffer for us. A conservative estimate puts the number of serious accidents (more than 5 fatalities) in the coal, oil and gas industries as 2592 (1970-2008) within the EU (10 times that in developing countries). All communities are liable for these hidden discrepancies.

Now I'm am not suggesting that the two turbines proposed will totally transform this inequality, but they are a step in right direction.

If we take the second definition and broaden our view of community, from small geographic differences to a more general, community of interest, the discussion becomes very different. It is in the interest of every community to secure a vibrant local economy and produce renewable electricity. As I have explained previously (in my first blog post/ letter) the smaller parishes do not have the resources available for such a substantial development, that produces enough electricity for 2500 homes. So as a joint community of interest we respond to the needs locally in any way we can.

If we widen the geographic boundaries, accept we share common interests, and take into account the current energy system has many less publicised victims, we come to very different conclusions.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Can we ignore wind and just use solar?

A frequent response from those opposing onshore wind is that we should use more solar energy as it has a lower impact. While I agree there is a huge potential for solar energy (PV and thermal), particularly in the South West, it is not a perfect solution. We live fairly far North, which means that in the winter months, when are energy use peaks, the energy from the sun is very low. We also use more energy at night - when there is no generation from solar.
There is also variability from cloud cover that can have an impact, which can be easily seen at the Civic hall and Leatside surgery in Totnes, with the live output (kW) shown on the screens.

You could argue that solar PV is much more variable than onshore wind, however it is far more predictable and reliable. I found a report on renewable energy targets for Devon completed by the University of Exeter which states:
" large 3MW wind turbine generates more electricity in a year (at 25% load/ capacity factor) than over 3000 domestic (2kW) PV arrays at a tenth of the capital cost" 
(NB. as the report is a year old, the price of the PV panels has come down since). 
This remains a staggering statistic, that should needs to be taken into account when analysing the different options. It also shows the difference between micro-generation of renewable electricity and that of large scale production. It is far more efficient to do it at a larger scale, but then you have to also take into account the larger impacts. This was also mentioned in my last post - 92 small turbines needed to produce as much as the two large turbines proposed in Totnes Community wind farm.

If we look at the renewable production of energy in 2011 from the 2012 DUKES report, there was an interesting change - wind and hydro performing much better than previous years (windier and wetter). There has also been a lot of media attention on the extreme weather observed in 2012 in recent reports. Given these developments it is surely better to use a diverse set of generation technologies, including onshore wind, so we can weather the 'perfect storm' of resource scarcity, extreme climatic events, retiring power stations and increased demand. All communities should be responsible for generating some of their energy and conserving their use. The scale of the challenge and the lack of time means we cannot afford to ignore any low carbon technology.