Energy co-op to offer power to the people

European funding is helping to kickstart a new co-operative that aims to produce its own electricity and tackle fuel poverty.

The Horizon Energy Co-operative plans to work in partnership with social housing providers across North-West England to establish a microgrid capable of producing electricity and using its surpluses to help those tenants most at risk of fuel poverty.

The co-operative is the brainchild of Andrew Melchior, Managing Director of energy consultancy the EIF Partnership. As well as social housing providers, the Partnership is also consulting with a wide range of potential partners, including a renewable energy research unit at the University of Southampton.

Mr Melchior explains that the possibility of European funding was a big factor in helping the idea to take shape. “There was a call from the European Union in North-West England for submissions to stimulate micro power generation in social housing,” he says. 

“We were interested in the potential of a co-operative model involving social housing providers that could aggregate energy from properties across the region.” 

The proposal, which is currently at the concept stage of the application process, will result in a three-year pilot project involving homes in Stockport, Rochdale, Bury and Oldham and, potentially, three different power sources — solar, combined heat and power units and hydro. 

The housing providers will come together to establish a microgrid, a form of small-scale power generation, which will contribute to meeting the government’s target of generating 15 per cent of total energy from renewables by 2020 (the level achieved in 2009 being just two per cent). 

Like other microgrid operators, Horizon is able to take advantage of the government’s new feed-in tariffs scheme. The scheme offers small-scale electricity generators three separate financial benefits: a generation tariff for all the electricity produced; an export tariff for electricity exported to the grid and, for when electricity produced is lower than that required, an import tariff resulting in lower bills from an electricity supplier. 

The co-operative has already established firm links with a number of registered social landlords and arm’s-length management organisations across the region. 

Mr Melchior is excited at the prospect of these different housing providers working together for a common good.

“It is about creating partnerships that haven’t previously existed,” he explains. “There are echoes of the way in which the establishment of the electricity board brought previously independent power generators together.”

One partner is Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, whose Seven Sisters tower blocks already have solar panels installed. 

Mr Melchior feels the town’s 19th-century pioneers of co-operation would approve of Horizon’s 21st-century plans. 

“In much the same way that the Rochdale Pioneers came together to tackle poverty by providing good quality, affordable food to local people,” he says, “Horizon will be tackling fuel poverty by helping those residents on low incomes who struggle most to heat their homes.

“It is about using a co-operative model to deliver necessities to people in need.”

People living in fuel poverty are defined as those having to spend at least ten per cent of their disposable income on heating and lighting. 

Though the government has a strategy to eliminate such poverty in England by 2016, the prospect of rising energy prices means it is always going to be a difficult task. 

So, though it may be early days for Horizon, its progress and success will be watched with interest.

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