Community Energy Challenge
The Community Energy Challenge was a bold initiative by The Co-operative that supported seven community groups to develop sizeable renewable energy projects valued at £1m to £3m or rated in excess of 500kW.
The project, which was delivered by the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) on behalf of The Co-operative Group, encouraged community energy schemes across the UK by actively supporting groups in identifying and overcoming barriers, raising awareness of community renewables, creating schemes that could be replicated elsewhere and encouraging a cooperative ownership model.
The Community Energy Challenge was part of The Co-operative’s Clean Energy Revolution campaign.
The seven groups involved were:
- Brendon Energy whose aim was to work with local people to find the best site, or sites, for a small number of medium-sized wind turbines in the ten parishes around Wiveliscombe, Somerset.
- Abergwyngregyn Regeneration Company, a North Wales community group that worked with the National Trust to investigate the feasibility of a 500kW hydro project on the Anafon River.
- Towards Zero Carbon Bute who wanted to develop community-owned energy projects on the island, and to give people a say in the generation of local energy while delivering wider social and environmental benefits.
- Sustainable Oakenshaw in Co Durham who were seeking the widest participation possible in their efforts to develop a community-owned wind turbine that would generate funds to invest in improving the local area.
- Transition Belper who wanted to explore and develop community-owned and run hydro power projects in the Derwent Valley world heritage corridor between Cromford and Derby.
- Wey Valley Woodfuel, a community group in Surrey who were keen to explore an energy project with the potential to raise money through community share issues to install biomass boilers and generate free heat energy for community spaces such as schools, churches and leisure centres.
- The M40 Chilterns Environmental Group, an extremely able group with a big idea: to tackle noise pollution on a 20 mile section of the M40 while creating solar energy capacity through use of photovoltaic-enabled noise barriers. Here’s how the BBC covered the story.
CSE worked with these groups helping them become ‘investment ready’ by the end of 2013. Each group was assigned an expert mentor to support them in tackling tricky, time-consuming and relatively specialist tasks such as project planning, community facilitation and enterprise development, along with technical advice and targeted financial assistance for key costs at the project development phase (such as legal fees, planning fees, ecological monitoring and site analysis).
What happened next?
Brendon Energy‘s plans for a community owned 3-6 turbine wind farm (generating a total 1.5MW) fell through, thanks to the constraints of the local electricity grid, and lobbying from a local anti-wind group. Smaller-scale proposals put forward by the group were also unsuccessful and so the group decided to concentrate on solar, launching a second share offer for solar installations on three community buildings in the area in 2013. Its members also set up a solar club to obtain bulk-buying discounts for solar PV installations.
The hydro project in Abergwyngregyn made slow but steady progress and experienced ongoing lease issues with the National Trust, but a favourable agreement with Natural Resource Wales was concluded. The group later successfully raised £450,000 of the estimated £1.3m construction costs through a share issue, with the remainder met by loan funding from the Charity Bank. The group then went on to appoint contractors in autumn 2014, and eventually saw the system commissioned and running in December 2015.
Plans for a community wind development on Bute stalled when the owners of the preferred site pulled out, but negotiations continued with another landowner who was interested in renewable energy and the rental income of the turbines. In expectation of a positive outcome, the group prepared materials for a share issue and secured funds to take the project to the planning stage
There was an unexpected outcome for Sustainable Oakenshaw. In the course of planning and development the owner of the chosen site for the community wind farm decided he wished to finance and own the project himself. In recognition of the work the group had done to obtain planning permission and gain public support, the landowner agreed to donate a lump sum to Oakenshaw Community Association (this was to be the main beneficiary of a project) plus an annual donation over the next 20 years. Both the group and the community were happy with this arrangement, and a 70m wind turbine was subsequently installed at the site in early 2015.
It was a slower progress in the Derwent Valley for Transition Belper. Their initial feasibility study for a community-owned and run hydro scheme was completed, but things were delayed until the Environment Agency completed their review of the pre-application paperwork. Although the proposals were later supported by the Rural Community Energy Fund, changes in national funding sources and Environment Agency conditions eventually stalled progress.
Wey valley Woodfuel met with some success. Following successful feasibility studies, the group submitted a full planning application to install two 199 kW Hertz biomass boilers in a new boiler house at the Care Ashore sheltered housing near Cranleigh. The project successfully raised capital through a social enterprise scheme (via Springbok Sustainable Wood Heat Co-operative) and the boilers were later installed and linked up to a district heating system which heats the main house, annex and mews, and around 14 other residential buildings on the Springbok Estate.
And partial success, too, for the M40 Chilterns Environmental Group. As a result of the group’s tireless efforts over a number of years, the Highways Agency agreed in 2016 to support the development of motorway noise barriers and install these along stretches of the M40. Unfortunately however the proposals for solar PV enabled barriers (abbreviated to PVNBs) and community-ownership models were not taken forward.
More detail about all the projects can be found on the ‘wrapping-up newsletter’.
As the project drew to a close, CSE’s Martin Holley said:”Community energy is still not widely implemented in the UK, and the Community Energy Challenge shows why. The groups who took part faced many hurdles along the way, enough to put off all but the most determined individuals and organisations, and, indeed, some were forced to drop out altogether.
“Nonetheless, we’ve seen many successes and achievements, with each group helping to break down barriers and raise awareness of community energy. It’s been great to work with all of these groups, and we would like to congratulate each one on their efforts and wish those with ongoing projects every success for the future.”
Community energy videos
These four short (8-12 min) films show successful community energy projects in action: solar PV in West Oxford; biomass district heating for a small community in Sussex; a community-owned wind turbine in Nottinghamshire; and a community hydro-electric scheme on the River Ribble in North Yorkshire.
Note that these are ‘medium-sized’ community initiatives – smaller than the ones supported by the Community Energy Challenge detailed above.
These videos were made for our PlanLoCaL project. In all, some 47 videos were made for this initiative, which you can find on our YouTube channel.