Local energy for local communities

Community energy should be about matching community generation with community usage, said Dr Mary Gillie, speaking at the 2016 Community Energy Conference. “Let’s be grateful for what we...

Community energy should be about matching community generation with community usage, said Dr Mary Gillie, speaking at the 2016 Community Energy Conference.

“Let’s be grateful for what we have – but if we want a low carbon system, we need to develop a system that recognises the value of small scale renewable energy,” she said. “We need to give people information from the bottom up and give people a meaningful role that lets them take responsibility but still get on with their lives.”

Dr Gillie is the founder of Energy Local, set up to develop systems so communities can benefit from pooling and using their own energy generation and get power cheaper at cheaper times of day.

One such community is in Bethesda, north Wales, where community benefit society Ynni Ogwen (Ogwen Energy), raised funds for a community-owned hydro.

With Energy Local, the participants and the hydro formed an Energy Local Club. Using a smart meter, club members show the amount of power they are using when the hydro is generating; members agree the price for the hydro they use when it is generating (eg 7p/kWh), so local households get cheaper power and the hydro receives more money for the community.

River Ogwen, Bethesda
River Ogwen, Bethesda

For community energy to benefit communities, the technology and the market need to match local generation, explained Dr Gillie, giving the example of a school fitted with solar pv panels. During the day over the school holidays, energy generated will be exported to the grid.

“If you could connect local people and get them to move energy consumption times from peak evening times to day times, they would receive the multiple benefits of cheaper electricity, generated locally, with money going back into the local community.

“For this to work, we need to give people information on when energy is being generated – on a sunny day or when a hydro is going full blast … People also need to be encouraged to shift non-time-critical use, such as washing machines, and also use led lighting, or think about slow cooking or batch cooking.”

It’s also about the economic multiplier that you get from keeping that money locally, added Dr Gillie. “It encourages social cohesion, and it reaches more people – not just those who can afford energy generation.”

Read more from throughout Community Energy Fortnight (3-18 September 2016) at www.thenews.coop/CEF16

Another Energy Local project is Swell, which is being supported by Co-operative Energy and involves 48 properties south of Oxford taking part in a trial where they could access a ‘time of day’ tariff, benefit from cheaper prices at periods of low demand and/or high generation and access locally generated renewable power directly.

The households are testing equipment which has been designed to control electrical devices (in particular storage heaters and water heaters). The controls help ‘match’ local demand with local solar generation and ‘shift’ electricity usage into low price periods. There is also a display to show usage and the cheap times of day to use power.

Dr Gillie says that through the trial, Energy Local wants to “create generic materials and constitutions that will be able to be used by any other group that wants to work together using this co-operative approach for everyone’s benefit”.

“This could turn the electricity system upside down,” she added. “It won’t solve all the problems, but does let people take back control … Community energy is more than just a return on a share, but we can only do it with everybody’s skills.”

Joe Warren, Powervault
Joe Warren, Powervault

One solution to the problem of connecting energy generation and usage is developing and installing energy storage technology, said managing director of Power Vault Joe Warren, who believes energy storage has been missing from conversations around community energy.

“We’ve had some really exciting new technologies such as solar panels and smart metres,” he said, “but these technologies don’t really work very well because they’re missing a key piece of the puzzle, which is energy storage.”

A graph (below) from early August illustrated how potential energy at one wind farm was not being harnessed as the wind was generating in the wrong place (yellow) or there was too much energy on the grid (green), and in both cases nowhere for it to be stored.

“If we could store that energy and use it later, we wouldn’t be spending £3m a day on turning off wind farms,” said Mr Warren. “It’s getting to the point where it is cheaper to generate and store energy locally than it is to buy electricity from a centralised grid.”

As well as reducing costs by offsetting the high cost of electricity, storage can help during blackouts, help stabilise the network and reduce CO2 emissions. There are particular opportunities for community energy, he said, especially for housing associations, community buildings and community-funded energy storage.

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