A short story of some Community Energy Pitfalls
A couple of years ago a Community Energy pioneer changed his focus from the Vale of Glamorgan to Cardiff. This was borne out of years of frustration with his local council and also the apparent willingness of the Welsh capital to embrace renewable energy. Strategic documents stated clearly that there was a desire to work in partnership with community groups to help develop projects across the city. Great news and a real positive step forward as far as pioneers are concerned. The dormant Cardiff Community Energy (CCE) Co-operative was resurrected with its original members and the hard work began.
Cardiff Council was keen to get several projects off of the ground including an ambitious hydro scheme and schools were also highlighted as a possible location for some PV systems. The economics were such that there was an appetite for the Council to do most of the work themselves, but their commitment to partnership working meant that some engagement with Cardiff Community Energy (CCE) should be attempted. Renew Wales was able to utilise the specialist knowledge of Share Energy (who acted as Mentors to CCE) in order to help the group get all of the various specialist elements of a project together.
Then the landscape changed as the Greenest Government Ever decided that the Hard Working Families of the UK preferred £6 off of their electricity bills rather than a sustainable future. This sent shock waves through the sector and the race was on to get projects registered in time to still have access to the renewable energy tariffs. Without these payments the whole business plan would have to be radically redrawn and might not end up being feasible. This was a planning problem for all, but CCE’s situation was not fully recognised by the Council. In the end, Cardiff Council gave the necessary details for the Pre-registration process to CCE on the final day before pre-registration closed! Thankfully, like all community groups, the extra mile was travelled and the documents were lodged on time.
OFGEM then announced that there was such a high demand for pre-registration that the decisions on whether to grant project approvals could take months. This was indeed the case and CCE waited nervously for an outcome. No point fully engaging with the schools if there wasn’t to be a project. After all, it was expected that all the schools would welcome some cheap energy and also a great teaching resource.
In the meantime, Cardiff Council, just got on with installing PV onto four schools during term time using private companies in order to meet the FiT deadlines. Their original plan was to get 90 installations completed. In the end they managed 4. CCE’s approach was much more about process and engagement and so we couldn’t just crack on with installs. Still there were things for CCE to do. Legal agreements between the council, the schools and CCE all needed to be finalised. Conversations between CCE and the Western Power Distribution were also undertaken. Financial considerations were mostly on hold due to the situation with OFGEM, but nevertheless the group had plenty to do in preparation. If the projects did get the nod then the pre-registration agreement still meant that they would need to be complete by Autumn 2016. Early 2016 was spent briefing cabinet members and also contacting the schools, but it was not until the 3rd of March that the pre-registration was confirmed.
This news, though very welcome, was just before the Easter break, so the schools were contacted with this positive development. However, CCE only had a matter of a few weeks to meet with the Head Teachers, the Governors and any other parties. Naturally the schools were busy with their normal workload and also all the activities around Easter, so they were pretty unresponsive. CCE were also still waiting for the lease agreements from the Council. The discussions were therefore somewhat hamstrung by not having the final agreement from the Council to present to the schools.
Issues then started to present themselves:
• Two of the schools were due to have roof repairs within the next couple of years and assurances could not be given as to when this would occur.
• Western Power Distribution said that a school could not have anything more than a 3kW system installed. This was the equivalent of saying that the school couldn’t buy another kettle as it might overload the system!
• A school started making noises that it was concerned about its grant being clawed back if it had lower running costs due to the PV panels
• Another school was basically uncommunicative and certainly not enthusiastic.
What was going on?
• Why weren’t the repairs known about / shared with CCE?
• Why were the schools worried about losing finances in lieu on savings?
In the end CCE was left with:
• Two schools that couldn’t commit to installing this year due to the work that was planned on the roofs
• One school decided not to support the project though no official reasons were given
• One school that was keen but would have only benefited a domestic sized PV array
• The last school just plain refused to entertain the idea of having PV installed. No reason given, no feedback, virtual silence.
So what did the project really need?
• Good communication channels with the real decision makers in the Council
• Really good fundamentally sound projects rather than fringe ones
• To be seen as an integral element for the delivery of change in partnership with the Council
• Real drive and dedicated time from Council staff in order to push through and past obstacles like the legal delays
• Time to communicate with the recipients in a constructive manner
• Clear guidance from the Council regarding how a Community Energy project might impact on the host project
• Integration of a community mind set in procurement practices, so that there is not an automatic assumption that all work is just put out to tender solely to the private sector
In the end the whole of CCE’s schools project was abandoned. The CCE volunteers have spent many hundreds of hours working on this community energy project. They have jumped through many hoops, over hurdles and gone the extra mile, but ultimately external influences have got the better of them. Whilst it should be stated that some individual Cardiff Council staff had been very supportive one was left with the impression that they were just understaffed, overworked and hampered by the systems that they have to work within. There was also a general lack of understanding about the community energy sector and the need for true partnership working and the openness and honesty that this demands for a successful project delivery.
As a comparison Swansea Council developed a similar project but did not have an equivalent of Cardiff Community Energy so they set up a community benefit society with aims similar to CCE's. Swansea Community Energy and Enterprise Scheme (SCEES) has council officers as founding directors, who will step down to be replace by elected directors in due course. SCEES pre-registered 18 schools and is currently seeking bids for installation during the summer holiday.
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