Expert views on Community Energy and Lowfield Green
As previously advertised, York Community Energy co-hosted a public meeting with Yorspace on April 22nd, entitled “Building an Energy Community in York”. The purpose of the meeting was to gather members of both groups (and interested members of the public) to discuss the upcoming housing development at the Lowfield Green site in Acomb, where Yorspace have been given permission to build 19 new low-carbon houses, jointly owned by a community co-operative. The houses are to be built to or near the Passivhaus standard, which means that they will be incredibly well insulated and hardly require any heating at all, even in the winter. However, there still remains the question of how best to deliver electricity (and a small amount of heating) to these homes in a sustainable and affordable fashion, which is where things get interesting to us!
The meeting consisted of three presentations by members of community groups who have been involved in similar projects across the country, and were able to share their wisdom and experience with us, talking us through some of the possible models for community power supply, as well as some of the potential logistical and legal hurdles.
First up were Jonathan Atkinson and Ben Aylott from Carbon Co-op, which is a Manchester-based community group that works in community energy and insulation retrofitting. They have a lot of expertise in the area of private wire and microgrid technologies, and suggested a number of ways a community microgrid could be implemented at the site, including:
- Peer-to-peer, or P2P (residents produce energy e.g. from solar panels and trade with other residents in an internal market)
- Sleeving (P2P-style trading, but produced energy is sent to the grid rather than directly from house to house)
- Local generation tariffs (if there is a large renewable energy producer nearby, residents can pay lower rates when it is producing, although the energy is sent to the grid rather than directly to the homes)
In the latter two cases, the cost benefit is marginal, and with P2P there are potential legal hurdles, although these are not necessarily insurmountable.
Jonathan and Ben were keen to point out the need for modelling the likely energy demand of the houses, rather than just pushing ahead without thinking of how to match supply to demand throughout each day and throughout the year. For example, one might assume that demand is lowest during the day and highest in the evenings, but what if most of the residents work from home, work erratic hours or have no job at all? This is why it is important to start with a model and then use it to inform the technology choices. Even with this approach, the energy produced locally may not be enough to power the homes at all times, especially in the winter.
Ultimately, the take-home message was “no community is an island”. In other words, even on a community microgrid, you may still end up depending on an outside supplier, be it for legal reasons or simply to meet demand all year round.
Next, we had Jim Wild from LEDA, a Leeds-based co-operative of architects and engineers dedicated to building new environmentally friendly buildings. Jim offered some wise words on the economics of energy generation, and also showed us some of the projects that LEDA have been involved in.
On the economics front, Jim raised the point that energy is so cheap that we as a society don’t even stop to think about it. There is also a lot of politics and infrastructure in place to keep it cheap and reliable, even if that means using counter-intuitive measures like importing biomass (wood pellets) from the United States and burning it in former coal plants in the UK.
One of the projects LEDA has been involved in is the Little Kelham housing development in Sheffield. The houses and apartments are owned by a CIC (Community Interest Company), which residents become members of when they buy their house. The CIC provides all the utilities, including electricity from the 160kWp of solar panels situated across the roofs of the houses. Any electricity shortfall is made up with green electricity supplied by Good Energy, charged to residents at the wholesale rate, which is considerably cheaper than the normal rate. Any profits from surplus solar energy production are invested back into the CIC. The houses themselves are incredibly well insulated and so require minimal heating, saving residents even more money and further reducing their carbon footprint.
Lastly, we heard from Kevin Frea of Lancaster Cohousing, a community housing project that takes advantage of a nearby 160kW hydro-electric turbine on the River Lune, as well as roof-mounted solar panels and a district heating system using a highly efficient central wood-chip boiler. The houses are built to the Passivhaus standard, and in fact are so efficient that they barely need to use the district heating system at all, making it arguably not worth the not-inconsiderable trouble of maintaining.
In terms of electricity production, the hydro-electric turbine is owned by a separate community energy group, which acts as the supplier to the houses via private wire. In practice, supplying the energy direct to the houses is the only way to generate a reasonable amount of profit as a local energy producer. They had hoped to sell even more of the hydro power to the rest of the village, but as there would be no direct connection to the houses, they would have to use a local generation scheme. This would involve exporting the electricity to the grid, with the residents paying a lower price to consume electricity at times when the turbine was generating electricity. In reality, there isn’t much profit in this type of scheme, so they decided to abandon it.
Kevin had a word of warning about house prices: because the houses are sold as freehold, they are subject to the whims of the housing market, and so the prices can rise much higher than originally anticipated. This is unfortunate because one of the goals of community housing is to be more affordable and not price poorer members of society out of a clean energy future.
This was a really information-packed session, and we are grateful to our speakers for sharing their insights and experiences with us. It was great to see so many varied approaches, but at the same time it highlighted the fact that these unconventional community energy systems are not straightforward, and we need to find a solution that meets the specific needs of the community. However, if we do the research and put in the planning work now, then we can secure a clean power supply to the homes at Lowfield Green for decades to come, and hopefully lead the way for other community housing (and community energy) projects in York and elsewhere in the UK!