By Alex Vasili
Residents of Balcombe Move to Make Community Self-sufficient in Energy
The supporters of fracking make an argument that is difficult to refute. They say shale gas is essential to the UK’s energy needs, that it will give us security from troublesome oil barons and gas czars, and that nothing else will do until we have nuclear power stations, and lots of them.
So try this as a counter-strategy. Make your community self-sufficient through the clean, green power of renewables. Oh, and release yourself from the tight grip of the Big Six energy companies at the same time.
It may sound like a tall order, but that’s what a determined group are proposing in, appropriately, the very village that became the first in Britain where the frackers were seen off by public opinion, although Cuadrilla, the company concerned, dispute this, saying that the local geology was wrong all along.
Briefly last summer Balcombe in West Sussex was in the eye of a media storm, as gas company Cuadrilla attempted to do survey work ahead of possible drilling for shale gas. It attracted angry demonstrations, considerably augmented by protesters from outside the village.
In the end of the company abandoned plans, saying the nature of the rock meant fracking would not take place. Some might say that no sensible company concerned about its image and public order would want to go back and try all over again.
Call to Action
This could have been a hollow victory, where a village and the wider anti-frackling brigade irresponsibly see off the first attempt in the UK to at least find a solution, however uneasy, to a very clear, looming energy crisis.
Instead some people in the community saw it as a call to positive action. Spared fracking, they decided to find their own, home grown community-owned solution, with a pledge to make themselves energy self-sufficient. They would seek investment, initially from the local community, to finance the installation of solar photovoltaic panels on the rooftops of local buildings.
The target the REPOWER Balcombe co-operative has set itself is to “supply the equivalent of 100 per cent of Balcombe’s electricity demand through community owned, locally generated renewable energy.” It does not give a date when it might reach that target.
The Balcombe co-operative initially aims to raise £300,000 in a community share offering for six solar arrays on roofs in and around the village. This would supply 7.5 per cent of the village’s power demand. This month (March, 2014) it announced it had signed a lease to host the first 19kw array on the roof of a cow shed at a local family-owned farm. A further five sites could be fitted with solar before too long.
Each project is expected to deliver at least a five per cent return to investors during the 20-year life of the scheme, while any profits will be ploughed into a community benefit fund.
In its bold energy self-sufficiency ambition, Balcombe joins places such as Wadebridge in Cornwall. Here the plan of the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (Wren) is more precise. It is for the town of 8,300 people to source all its energy needs from within the local area, using renewables, by 2020.
Renewable energy would underpin a powerful redevelopment agenda. Wren foresees a local energy market built around micro and community generation and smart energy, to revive the depressed community’s entrepreneurial spirit and create high-value jobs.
More promising energy cooperatives, “democratic not-for-profit organisations”, are springing up, mainly in the South of England.
One city with a big ambition is Bristol, where the Bristol Power Co-op is raising finance to install solar panels on home roofs at no cost to the residents. It recently raised £100,000 in an eco-loan from the company Pure Leapfrog, (calling itself “the leading provider of social investment and professional support to community energy projects in the UK”) to install solar panels for free on 25 house roofs.
In 2012, Bristol City Council published a solar map, showing every roof in Bristol, and its suitability for solar panels. The council reckons that panels fitted on every suitable roof there would provide almost half the city’s electricity needs.
A spoke person for The Eco Experts said that initiatives like the ones in Bristol and the South of England are exactly what the Renewable sector need in order to help people start taking the technology seriously as a viable alternative to the Big Six. Moreover it is imperative that local communities models like this if the UK is to meet its Carbon Emissions Target by 2020 .
In London there are several thriving community projects under the umbrella of Repowering London. One of Repowering London’s projects is Brixton Energy, which has so far set up three separate schemes, described as the first inner-city community-owned solar power stations in Britain.
Another of the London initiatives is the Hackney Energy community group. Hackney Energy aims to create renewable energy and low carbon projects that benefit the local community.
Wey Valley Solar Schools Energy Co-operative is another South of England project with successful solar schemes under its belt. This community-owned co-operative was set up by local people. In 2011 it launched a share offer which raised £625,000 from individual investors to put solar panels on the roofs of six state secondary schools in Surrey. The panels are in place, generating power.
Boost for renewables
These are early days for community renewable projects, but it’s possible to see how the various small and very scattered pieces in the jigsaw might be joined up over the coming years. In January the Department of Energy & Climate Change published its Community Energy Strategy, with this optimistic statement: “we expect that by 2015 it will be the norm for communities to be offered the opportunity of some level of ownership of new commercial development of onshore renewables projects.”
A press release explained that community energy involves communities coming together to take control of the energy they use. Government-commissioned research concludes that with the right support communities can renewably power one million homes in the UK by 2020.
Friends of the Earth goes further. It believes community energy could play an important part in loosening the grip of the Big Six energy companies, who control 99 per cent of the UK energy market.
Back in Balcombe, the vision is bold:
“Advances in renewable technology mean that communities like ours can now generate the energy we need ourselves, locally, in a way that benefits us directly instead of [buying from] big power companies – and helps the environment instead of harming it.”
Its prospectus seems eager to deflect any criticism that solar, too, might be a blot on the landscape, as opponents are claiming elsewhere.
It pledges it will be “sensitive to local landscapes and environments; and to develop responsibly by targeting roof space first, and by adhering to Industry best practice.”
The size of the task remains immense. It would require a massive increase in community involvement in renewables schemes if Britain could even come near to making up the growing energy deficit. And it’s quite possible that fracking will still come to the British countryside, whether the public likes it or not.
Government ministers will continue to point to the dramatic effect of the shale gas revolution in the USA, which in a few short years has rearranged the world energy landscape. Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said in January (2014) it was “realistic” that the US could be energy self-sufficient by 2020.
Nevertheless solar pundit Jeremy Leggett paints an optimistic picture of the future of solar over the next decade.
“It’s going to grow, and keep growing. Sunshine is free and we’re going to see emerging markets leap-frogging complex grid process and moving straight to decentralised community-based solar energy systems. Almost half of all German renewables are owned by individuals and communities and I think this will be the way the global market moves too.”