Community Ownership of Energy

After the summer break, our September meeting welcomed an audience of over fifty persons to a fact-packed presentation by local expert Anthony Walters on the benefits accruing to local communities through the adoption of local energy generation schemes. You would rightly assume that this is a highly complex topic, but Anthony skilfully steered us towards a better understanding of the issues associated with carbon emissions, carbon footprints and the benefits from adopting renewable energy packages.

His starting point was to ask the question "why should we make an effort to devise local energy schemes?" His answer came in many parts; climate change, security of supply, the promotion of health and wellness, saving money and earning money. Touching on climate change, he reminded us of the great driver here which is, of course, the creation of unacceptable levels of carbon dixoide. There is a general, but not a total, recognition that producing higher levels of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels is having serious implications for the stability of our atmosphere. Even China, with its 1,933 coal fired energy plants (we now have only 20) has realised that they are unsustainable and is now investing in more sustainable forms of energy generation. Anthony told us that burning coal produces 1,000 grammes of carbon dioxide (CO2) for every ton of coal burned. Don't assume gas powered energy plants are the answer. Over half of our energy is generated from such plants and they still produce 360 grammes of CO2 for every ton of gas burned. Nuclear power plants have a lower footprint when operating, but still come in at a whopping 140 grammes per ton because of the energy required to actually build a nuclear power station. Similarly, wind energy is carbon-free, but the production element comes in at 11 grammes.

Anthony then surprised us by explaining that Lichfield has a relatively large carbon footprint. This is because there's a high level of commuting, households tend to be wealthier and therefore buy more energy-consuming gadgets, houses are larger, there are few cycleways and at Fradley we are blessed with a large distribution centre served by many lorries. All this means that the District's annual footprint is 13.54 kilogrammes of CO2 per person. Tamworth's is 11.79 and even Birmingham is lower at 11.29. The UK average is 12.07.

Turning to security of supply, he reminded us that despite our own North Sea gas accounting for about 40% of our gas requirements, we rely on Quatar and Russia for substantial supplies. With international instability, do we want to continue with this arrangement in the future? Shifting to renewables would ensure that this reliance was reduced, if not eradicated. All of us can now can monitor online the generation sources for our nation's energy supply. Quite often in the summer, the percentage of our energy generated by coal is down to single figures, gas drops to around 25% from over 50% and renewables like off-shore wind energy and solar energy come in to their own, backing up our nuclear-derived supply. So we are getting there - but slowly!

Anthony instanced some examples where the local communities were making real progress in establishing independent renewable energy supplies. With such efforts, come a number of beneficial spin-offs. Towns or smaller communities (one example was a Scottish island) can establish energy-generating plants (often derived from waste wood in his examples), wind energy sites and hydro-electric plants, with the aid of low-cost loans (from banks or government schemes). The energy generated is then fed to the properties in the community organisation with the excess being sold into the local grid and the "profit" utilised for the benefit of the local community. Such schemes also usually look at ways of reducing energy demand in the community, such as changing street lights or advising on energy-saving in the home. Woking town centre in Surrey has a similarly beneficial scheme promoted by the local council (and making a profit). By comparison, I'm afraid to say that Anthony's figures showed Staffordshire up in a poor light. The figures show that in Staffordshire only 11% of our energy is generated from renewable sources (compare to Yorkshire at 43%). Lichfield scores a paltry 3%. As a country, we are well behind many other European countries (and even China) in increasingly installing sustainable energy systems. Yet, Anthony asserts it is technically and financially feasible to establish small scale shared solar schemes, with a few dwellings linking together to share the power generated AND benefit from the sale of surplus energy to the grid. One scheme is already up and running in Lichfield.

So, if we can create energy-saving schemes, lowering the cost of energy, can we use this to improve health and wellness? Fuel poverty is seen as a major problem nationally and surprisingly, here in Lichfield, there are around 4,000 (yes, 4,000) households living in fuel poverty. This is 9.5% of our resident population. More people die from the affects of fuel poverty in Lichfield than in road accidents. It is calculated that there are on average 54 excess winter deaths in Lichfield and 500 winter-based admissions, costing the NHS 700,000. Within Staffordshire, Anthony cited the South Staffs Community Energy Partnership as a possible way forward. Established a few years ago, it has worked with the NHS to develop energy saving schemes on NHS property, one notably using solar panels installed on a Stoke hospital. These reduce the cost of energy to the NHS, which can sell on any surplus to the grid. The profits received can then be ploughed into a community fund to support heat insulation and other remedial work in the homes of those in fuel poverty. At the same time, warmer homes in the winter lead to lower hospital admissions for the most vulnerable, thus releasing hospital beds and cutting costs.

Despite the challenges of global warming, Anthony remained optimistic for the future. Much effort was now being invested in developing robust, sustainable and profitable systems to deliver our energy and there's a growing awareness that these systems can be applied in new ways to benefit wider society. This talk was probably one of the most fact-packed presentations that we have enjoyed. Without doubt, the audience came away with a greater understanding of these issues. Let's hope that all of us, including our Councils, can rise to the challenge.

Roger Hockney
September 2017