CARES community energy conference

The CARES conference took place at Perth Racecourse this year (8-9 May) and, as always, it attracted a capacity crowd. It’s a superb conference, with an impressive line-up of presentations and workshops, and it really is an essential event for any community group considering a renewable energy project. Community energy has always been central to our work at Locogen and we’ve been lucky enough to win some awards for community hydro and wind projects. We were therefore delighted to sponsor this year’s conference and below we have put together a review of two excellent days at the races!

Paul Wheelhouse on the outlook for community energy in Scotland

Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, gave the keynote and was clear in his views about the damage to the industry caused by the end of the feed-in tariff. He went on to suggest the proposed Smart Export Guarantee would offer little benefit for many projects at community scale and bemoaned the ‘cliff edge’ created by the end of the FiT. Mr Wheelhouse celebrated Scotland’s achievements in renewable energy thus far, highlighting the 74.6% of the country’s electricity produced by renewables in 2018 and the contribution made by 696 MW of community owned projects. Going forward, the Minister emphasised the need for supported projects to be replicable and confirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to distributed generation. In response to questions about the Scottish Government’s proposed energy company in light of some high-profile company failures in that market, Mr Wheelhouse suggested that more work needed to be done to assess market conditions before the launch of any company.

Paul Wheelhouse speaking at CARES community energy conference

Next up, Sue Kearns, Deputy Director for Consumers and Low Carbon in the Scottish Government gave an overview of the Scottish Government’s Local Energy and Low Carbon ambitions

Sue pointed out the considerable progress towards decarbonisation already made, with Scotland having some of the toughest targets in the world and the country’s electricity generation halved in carbon since 1900. That’s an impressive result but Sue pointed out the far greater challenge of decarbonising heat and transport. This, she said, would require behavioural changes, in addition to technology and government policy. Expanding on the challenges around heat, Sue pointed out that much of population who are off gas grid and/or on pre-paid meters are paying too much for their heating, creating a social problem as well as an environmental one. Sue went on to discuss the implementation of Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies (LHEES). LHEES are led by local authorities but projects are encouraged to cross local authority boundaries where appropriate. These strategies should detail the most appropriate approaches to decarbonise the heat supply in their area and should focus on replicable projects capable of commercialisation.

Responding to questions, Sue discussed how remote islands can implement such projects by adopting a ‘whole island’ approach, rather than smaller, ‘point’ solutions with single technologies and smaller communities. Sue also said that the government will be looking again at how they support the marine energy sector.

The next session featured a selection of video presentations, including one from Chris Stark, CEO of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Chris talked about the CCC’s recent report to government, recommending a move to net zero carbon across the UK by 2050 and a slightly tighter 2045 target specific to Scotland. He shared his belief that this can be achieved with known technologies and without significant shock to consumer behaviour.

Interestingly, Chris also emphasised the importance of community engagement in moving forward with the next stage of decarbonisation and achieving a ‘just’ transition away from the carbon economy in Scotland.

David Edwards talks BANANAS

Environmental speaker, David Edwards, was next up to the podium and provided some broad context to the energy debate. He pointed out the huge increase in energy consumption over the last century and how completely disproportionate this is when compared with population increase. Indeed, while the earth’s population has multiplied by 2.7 since 1900, energy demand has increased sevenfold. Clearly, this has a lot more to do with modern economies and lifestyles than it does with just population increase. This is borne out by the fact that the US has just 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of fossil fuels. David also touched on the impact our energy needs have on foreign policy, with our dependence on fossil fuels from not always enlightened foreign regimes preventing the development of an ethical foreign policy.

David shared an interesting triangular diagram with the three, not always compatible, desires for a national energy supply at each corner; these being secure, low carbon and affordable. He pointed out that it might not always be possible to optimise our energy supply for all three and sensible discussions need to take place around what our priorities should be. Another interesting stat was the unusually high support for renewable energy projects, with an overall 66% of the public answering ‘yes’ to the question: “I would be happy to have a large-scale renewable energy development in my area”. This runs against the usual ‘NIMBY’ attitude (not in my backyard) and brings us to another superb acronym, and a new one on us, ‘BANANA’. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Iona Hodge from LES shared information on the various mechanisms CARES have in place to support community energy projects and also introduced the network of mentors around the country, who are on hand to share their wisdom on developing these often complex projects.

After an excellent lunch of soup and sandwiches, the afternoon session kicked off with Colin Renfrew from Fyne Energy. Colin talked about Fyne Homes’ 6.9 MW Auchadaduie Wind project and the benefits it brings to the community. He also touched on the planning challenges that need to be overcome, including a wry reflection on the extraordinary delays caused by the (supposed) sighting of a single Greenland Goose.

David MacLeod, from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, talked about the innovative Outer Hebrides Local Energy Hub. This is a project close to our hearts, as Locogen designed, procured and project managed the construction of the 300kW wind turbine integral to the hub. This superb example of a circular economy project involves the wind turbine, CHP, hydrogen generation, a fish farm and refuse lorries. You can learn more about it here.

Electric Eigg

Electric Eigg is a great example of the ‘Whole Island Approach’ that Sue Kearns discussed earlier in the day. Lucy Conway and Bob Wallace talked us through the setting up and running of a system that encompasses wind, solar and hydro elements, delivering power to homes and businesses across Eigg via their very own high voltage microgrid. Angela Williams then spoke about the considerable income derived by Fort Augustus and Glenmoriston Community from their community benefit fund, allowing them to fund excellent projects, such as their apprenticeship scheme.

The afternoon continued with a choice of learning sessions: Understanding Shared Ownership, What Scottish Communities Can Learn from Sustainable Islands, and Local Energy Planning.

Shared ownership is often a vital part of community energy schemes and Mark Brennan, Local Energy Scotland, kicked off the session with a good look at the various options, such as split ownership, joint venture, shared revenue and community benefit approaches. Lorne Frew, Scottish Government, took us through the Good Practice Principles involved in shared ownership schemes. Andrew Smith from Force 9 then added some practical insights into what developers are looking for in a shared ownership project, touching on the need for consents, a profitable scheme (obviously!), shared objectives and a good understanding of community goals. Simon Lee and Imogen Sawyer, from Sanday Development Trust, then went on to discuss what this all means from the community point of view.

Finishing the day, Mark Hull, Community Energy Scotland, led a fascinating talk on what Scotland’s communities can learn from sustainable islands. He discussed Orkney’s renowned ‘Surf n Turf’ project, where energy from curtailed turbines and tidal generators is used to produce ‘green’ hydrogen. The project is looking to develop a hydrogen infrastructure on Orkney, including generating electricity from this hydrogen for the ferries docked at Kirkwall. Mark mentioned the international coverage Orkney has been getting for its innovative and ‘disruptive’ energy projects, with Forbes Magazine calling the islands the ‘poster child for sustainable development’. Rather than being ‘disruptive’ Mark opined that it was just about technologies and communities working together. Simon Morris, from Ricardo, broadened the discussion with some case studies from island communities around the world.

CARES community energy conference: Day two

Day two started with a session from Chris Morris, Local Energy Scotland, outlining the (excellent) support available from CARES. Andrew Morton, also LES, then kicked off a session on what’s next for community energy. Jodie Giles went on to talk about the transition from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) to Distribution System Operators (DSOs) and what this could mean for community energy. The new DSOs will be required to take on system operator functions, such as active network management, which could enable community energy projects to benefit from additional revenue streams by accessing the flexibility market, and opportunities such as balancing, storage and demand-side response. Such additional revenues could help marginal community energy projects ‘stack up’ financially.

Gillian Wilson from Community Energy Scotland talked about how her organisation could help communities move energy projects forward, offering guidance and support at a ‘pre-CARES’ stage, to help projects get in shape to move to that next level. It was great to hear they are in contact with 404 community groups, so there’s definitely a huge potential to bring more projects forward. The session ended with Simon Morris from Ricardo talking about implementing a ‘campus approach’ to renewable energy projects, where systems are developed for the diverse needs of the various buildings in hospitals, prisons, universities and so on.

Locogen's David Linsley-Hood on community renewable heat projects

The conference then broke into its learning streams. All were, of course, fantastic but we can probably be forgiven for focusing here on our very own David Linsley-Hood, who gave a talk on community heating and, specifically, his experiences developing shared loop heat pump projects.

David talked about the different choices available for such projects and the pros and cons of each. One option is a centralised heat pump network, which uses a centralised ground collector, centralised heat plant and individual plate heat exchangers in a high temperature district heat network. A second option is a shared loop heat pump network. This utilises a shared ground collector with individual heat pumps on a low temperature district heat network. Moving away from the district heating approach, Davis also touched on the possibility of individual heat pumps and an ‘Assignation of Rights’ where the community takes on ownership of the Renewable Heat Incentive payments in order to deliver ‘free’ heat pumps to its members.

Each approach has pros and cons, with the assignation of rights being simple, low risk and low cost, but only attracting the 7-year domestic RHI, which will just about pay for the system but little else. District heating systems, on the other hand, can derive significant revenues for the community from the 20-year non-domestic RHI but the capital expenditure is far greater and there are obvious complexities in signing up enough properties to join the scheme. These systems also typically have higher COPs, thus delivering, in theory at least, cheaper heat to the community.

David went on to advise on key considerations when looking at such projects, running from ensuring you carry out an options appraisal, stakeholder engagement and seeking good technical advice. He also emphasised the need to properly understand the heat demand, create clear heat supply agreements and calculate realistic heat savings (not an easy task). He also touched on the need to accurately assess thermal conductivity and ground risks, while obtaining all the necessary consents and funding. He concluded that there are a number of different approaches to community heating projects with huge opportunity to deliver savings and benefits to the communities they serve. But he also stressed the complexity of such projects and the need to secure specialist advice. Lastly, he emphasised the need to get our skates on, with the RHI scheduled to end in 2021.

David Linsley-Hood talking at the CARES community energy conference

David’s talk was followed by an excellent case study from Matthew Black of Fintry Development Trust, majoring on techniques to engage the community and peppering his talk with real world examples. Ken Brady from the Energy Development Trust wrapped up the session with a funder’s viewpoint on what to do before starting off on such projects.

The afternoon featured another choice of learning sessions: Delivering community benefit funds, New opportunities in local energy, Local energy policy and Pre-registered solar. Plumping for the Delivering community benefit funds talk, we heard Laura Campbell from Local Energy Scotland and Rachel Searle-Mbullu from Foundation Scotland deliver an in-depth look at the practicalities of delivering community benefit funds. Laura took us through the CARES funding and support available at each stage in the process, highlighting the Scottish Government’s ‘Good Practice Principles’. Rachel then focused on some real-world examples to show what is happening on the ground.

Phew! It was a busy two days but extremely rewarding and informative. The presentations are available here. Overall, the CARES conference delivered an excellent blend of inspirational talks and case studies, a healthy dose of practical advice and lots of information on the (outstanding) support and funding available for community energy projects.

And it also delivered a new (to us) acronym: BANANA.

This refers to the reluctance of some to have any development close to them, an issue often known as NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard). BANANA provides the answer to this: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone – thanks to David Edwards for bringing us this rather fabulous acronym.

Hopefully, involving the community in energy projects helps us overcome these barriers and saves us all from going BANANAS.