Ebbs and flows

Community hydro schemes are flourishing in the north, bringing environmental gains and local investment. So why is the government planning to cut funding for them? Sarah Roe reports

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In New Mills, they look forward to the autumn and winter. Steady rainfall over a few days is best, and they hope for plenty of spring and summer showers too. Rain means that “Archie”, the reverse Archimedes screw in the Torrs Hydro electric scheme, cranks up and begins to generate energy, and money, the profits of which go straight back into the community.

“May was OK but there wasn’t much in June and July and you can see it’s just dribbling over the edge of the weir at the moment,” says Richard Body as we stand at the side of the silent machine. When the rain comes in autumn the screw turns most days, turning at 30 revolutions per minute, generating electricity to power the nearby Co-operative building and gathering a steady income for the community.

“I’m looking forward to November, December, January and February,” says Body.

Built in the shadow of the stately Union Road Bridge and on the site of a former mill, the hydro is the latest epic achievement for a community that has a long history of working with the natural elements. The steep-sided gorge of the Torrs made it a prime spot for energy generation back in the 19th century and water wheels powered several mills in the area.

The project was Britain’s first community-owned hydro scheme when it opened in 2007, and celebrated generating its millionth KW hour this spring. It cost a third of a million pounds to build and was supported by around 230 shareholders, as well as grants from the government and the Co-operative. Shareholders received their first modest bonus this year and in the next year the group expects to pay off its £70,000 bank loan.

Body says investors wanted to back the scheme, which is a co-operative, because of its benefits for the community at large. Although shareholders get some return on their investment, profits get ploughed into other projects that benefit local people, such as a school solar panel installation in the town and a community orchard.

“In the early days people didn’t really see it as an investment but as a gift that they might get their money back on in the end.”

Torrs Hydro is one of many community energy projects set up in the north in the last few years. The Department of Energy and Climate Change estimates that as many as 5,000 community groups are working to set up similar schemes.

Most are via solar panels on community roofs or in farm fields, but increasingly communities that once had their own waterwheel are looking at modern hydro schemes. Stockport now has two Archimedes screws, and the generators recently cranked up at Dovestones reservoir in Greenfield, near Oldham.

“Everywhere that had a mill in the past should have a water turbine now.”

More established schemes are now working to help other communities generate their energy. Baywind wind farm in Morecambe Bay was Britain’s first community energy project in 1996. The original Harlock Hill farm has five turbines and investors are about to create a new, bigger windfarm.

The co-op set up Energy4All to support other projects and has helped set up 10 community renewables projects around the country.

Baywind chairman Richard Scott says the potential for community energy generation is enormous.

“Everywhere that had a mill in the past should have a water turbine now… If you’ve got a south-facing cowshed you’re wasting an opportunity if you don’t have solar panels on it.”

Sheffield Renewables is about to set up its third community-owned solar panel scheme.

“Our first scheme generated 20 per cent more than expected and the second scheme is even better,” says Jean Tinsley at Sheffield Renewables, which has two rooftop schemes on a school and community building. But it’s not all good news.

Last year Ed Davey, former energy secretary, launched the first Community Energy Strategy, and talked of a community energy revolution in which community energy had the potential to supply one million homes by 2020. Support included more funding and a new community energy unit to help small groups navigate the complicated web of finance, regulations and technology information.

Yet since the new government was elected, subsidies for wind and solar projects have been slashed. Units selling energy to the national grid under the feed-in tariff (FiT) system are facing 80 per cent cuts in the price they are paid, making it harder for them to pay back loans.

“We’re very worried,“ says Tinsley. “We were hoping to do another scheme but if they cut the FiT we won’t be able to do any more at all. We will go into sleep mode.”

Will Dawson from environmental organisation Forum for the Future says the proposed changes “are as bad as they possibly could have been and don’t make any allowances for community energy groups”.

He adds that solar energy is on its way to becoming a cost-effective source of community energy but is still years away from surviving on its own.

The solar industry is set to be hardest hit if government proposals go ahead, but at the Solar Farm at Sheffield University scientists are working hard to keep the future bright for the sector.

“The solar industry has matured a lot in the last few years but it still has a long way to go,” says Aldous Everard, Sheffield University business development manager. Solar Farm has a testbed of 44 panels on the roof of the physics and astronomy building.

The Solar Farm is now the main source of data for the photovoltaics industry. Scientists research ways to improve solar technology and find out the best sites and systems for solar energy generation.

Everard says: “You do get preferential areas. Hillier places tend to be more cloudy and down by the coast there is more sunlight.”

Most projects are concentrated in the south of England, with some variations due to sunlight. Scotland produces around 80 per cent of that generated in Cornwall, but as half of light energy comes from diffuse light, Everard says the north of England has a lot of potential to develop more solar.

Scientists and campaigners are particularly interested in Germany, where the solar industry is much more established. Experts around the world looked on with trepidation during the recent solar eclipse but the German grid demonstrated its ability to recover from the sudden collapse in electricity supply.

Ultimately communities may have to rely on building better partnerships with big businesses and technological advancements rather than government subsidies. Despite the challenging environment more and more communities want to generate their own power.

At a recent conference optimistically entitled New Government, New Dawn, Community Energy England chief executive Emma Bridge said the mood was undefeated.

“I thought it would be very doom and gloom but everyone is joined up together and looking at the positive.”  

Power cuts

Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) were introduced in April 2010 to replace government grants to encourage small scale renewable electricity generation (up to 5MW). They cover domestic or community schemes for solar, wind, hydro-electric, anaerobic digestion and micro combined heat and power. FiTs are set by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem administers the scheme.

FiTs are made up of a generation tariff, in which the energy generator is paid a rate per unit of clean energy generated, whether or not they use it themselves, and an export rate, for surplus energy sold back to the national grid.

In August the government launched a consultation on FiTs that shocked small-scale providers. Proposals include slashing generation tariffs by over 80 per cent for solar and a third or more for wind and hydro schemes by next January, with the prospect of further, phased reductions.

The government cites high take-up of renewable energy incentives and reducing the burden to electricity consumers as the main reasons for the changes. The review does invite suggestions about ways to help community energy providers, but also states that government reserves the right to take away the tariff altogether.

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