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Can community energy projects help Bristol get to net zero?

A community organisation in Lawrence Weston has got permission to build England’s biggest onshore wind turbine, but other communities in Bristol are helping us transition to green energy. Here are some of their stories.

Bristol and the Climate Crisis

Ambition Lawrence Weston is leading the way for community energy in Bristol with proposals to install a 4 Megawatt (MW) wind turbine at Avonmouth capable of powering 3,500 homes.

The project will see the largest turbine yet to be installed in England, 150-metres tall, constructed on the edge of the city. 

Income from the turbine will go straight back to fund community development work in Lawrence Weston, as well as a learning zone to increase knowledge about renewable energy. They hope to have the machine spinning by summer or autumn next year.

This is a local success story, but if Bristol is to tackle the climate emergency and reach the 2030 net zero carbon goal set by the council, many more such projects will be needed.

All electricity consumed across the city will have to switch to clean, green sources of generation, like wind turbines – meanwhile burning of fossil fuels, such as natural gas to heat homes, will have to be phased out completely. For the council’s own operations, it has set a more urgent target of using only green energy by 2025.

2020 was an important year for renewable energy: across the UK more electricity was produced from renewables than fossil fuels for the first time ever.

But there is a long way still to go: direct emissions in Bristol have decreased by 36% since 2005, but hitting the 2030 target will require reduction at 1.6 times the rate, Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy report found last year.

Overall, the city uses 1,826 Gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity and, more worryingly, 2,738GWh of gas each year. By comparison, a 4MW wind turbine could be expected to generate around 9GWh of electricity per year – just 0.5% of Bristol’s consumption. 

The council is looking for a private sector partner for its City Leap project, aiming to deliver £1bn of green investment, but this has been significantly delayed and is set to work with big companies rather than local communities. The failure of the council’s retail energy venture Bristol Energy hasn’t helped either.

Meanwhile, community energy groups across Bristol are powering ahead with their own plans – and seem to point to a faster, fairer route for energy transition.

For example, Bristol Energy Cooperative has funding for a hydropower scheme powered by the river Avon, while other projects could see solar panels spread across the city’s roofs – all of this under the control of local communities.

They are part of the Bristol Energy Network, which helps groups in the city collaborate on energy projects. It aims, through community energy, “to enable people in Bristol to participate in the transition to sustainable energy,” as well as encourage inclusion and address fuel poverty, says its coordinator Emilia Melville.

Their vision is a “low carbon city where everyone has their energy needs being met” and ensuring democratic input into the transition to green energy. 

But is more support needed to allow this to happen?

A long road

Dave Tudgey, project development manager at Ambition Lawrence Weston’s subsidiary Ambition Community Energy, says their first foray into the sector was the development in 2016 of Bristol Energy Cooperative’s 4.2MW solar farm by the junction on the eastern edge of Avonmouth, on which Ambition Lawrence Weston was a project partner, receiving community benefit payments.

It gave them a taste and they came back for more, with the suggestion of constructing a community wind turbine. The plans were ambitious: their work began shortly after national planning rules were changed in 2015, making it exceedingly difficult to get consent for new onshore wind.

An initial £20,000 grant from the Urban Community Energy Fund in 2016 enabled Ambition Lawrence Weston to explore planning routes further; several sites owned by the council were looked at but ultimately only one proved suitable.

A visualisation of the Ambition Lawrence Weston turbine as it would appear when built.

Four paid interns were also brought to help with community engagement work, “so that it would be local people asking those questions,” says Tudgey.

He adds council support was also important. A further £78,000 grant from the Bristol Community Energy Fund in 2018 allowed further planning development work to take place and a public vote on what projects to fund from a pot made available by Bristol City Council from the sale of the Port of Bristol led to over £100,000 more funding over 2018 and 2019.

A lot of detail had to go into planning: for example, Tudgey says, road studies were needed on how components would be transported to site: “You want to avoid your turbine being stuck on top of a bridge: it’s not a good look!”

The hard work on the project detail and community engagement paid off last autumn when the project received planning consent with only one objection – from the neighbouring Seabank gas power station.

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) has now awarded £500,000 of EU funding, but the remainder of the £4.8m needed to build the turbine still needs to be secured.

Tudgey says he is looking at borrowing or bond options so that ownership will stay with Ambition Lawrence Weston, as well as working with Bristol City Council and others to find an organisation to commit to buying the turbine’s electricity at a fixed price long term – making borrowing money easier. 

The council has recently agreed to look at new contracting arrangements so it can procure locally-generated electricity.

Tudgey is also keen for national rule changes so that the community can benefit directly from the turbine’s power through cheaper electricity bills, as well as funding to get similar projects off the ground.

“It’s the only community [turbine] project being developed in England – we need so many more,” he says. He’s glad of its success but it’s been a long journey.

Micro-hydro: Bristol Energy Cooperative

Meanwhile Bristol Energy Cooperative, whose 9MW solar portfolio already powers the equivalent of 3000 average homes, is close to completing a £2m community share offer for more renewable energy projects.

Residents can gain a vote as a member for a minimum £100 buy-in, with the money being used to support projects including a 300KW microhydro scheme at Netham Weir, which will generate enough electricity for 250 homes.

Construction of two turbines which will generate power as the river Avon flows through them will begin next spring and be finished towards the end of year, Will Houghton, project developer at the co-op, says. “It will generate electricity that will mostly be used by a nearby business.”

£1.15m funding has been provided from the European Regional Development Fund to make the project viable.

Netham Weir. (Photo: Bristol Energy Coop)

The organisation is also looking at setting up ‘microgrids’, including one of the first at the Water Lilies ‘eco’ housing development in Lawrence Weston, currently in construction.

The small-scale electricity grids will integrate solar PV, battery storage and heat pumps for local residents, aiming to maximise local usage of power generated on site to  minimise the charges paid for importing or exporting energy from the national grid.

This means cheaper electricity for residents while increasing the income that can be earned from solar panels. “It’s about taking ownership,” says Houghton. “Generally the developments we are looking at are already communities that are interested in being sustainable.”

The project partners will look to sell the microgrids into local community ownership after a couple of years, enabling them to support newer projects.

Houghton says community energy projects have a crucial role in the energy system “in pushing the boundaries of what can be done”.

“You are always at the forefront, basically.”

Lockleaze Loves Solar

Meanwhile in the north of the city, Lockleaze Loves Solar, a collaboration with the Lockleaze Neighbourhood Trust and community-owned enterprise Low Carbon Gordano, has had to delay its plans to install 1MW of solar panels across 300 homes.

The project was targeted at those in fuel poverty and would have helped them reduce their energy bills but their plans have been complicated by Covid-19 and the sell-off of Bristol Energy, which Lockleaze Loves Solar had planned to partner with.

Chris Stuart-Bennet, director of Low Carbon Gordano, says it was likely to go forwards in a couple of years when falling solar costs make it more viable.

In the meantime, Lockleaze Loves Solar have worked on a deal with Bristol Credit Union and an installer to make it easier for home owners to put panels on their roofs. But Stuart-Bennett recognises this will limit who can take part.

To go further, community renewable energy needs government funding and tax breaks to be redirected from polluters such as oil and gas, which get a lot of government subsidy, he says. 

He called for a level playing field: “With renewables, battery storage and other newer clean tech schemes, it’s just assumed they are going to operate on their own two feet… They aren’t given the subsidies other legacy industries are.”

Where next for community energy?

Elsewhere in the city, a range of innovative community energy projects are bubbling up in different neighbourhoods.

For example, Eastside Community Trust, is seeking to expand its mini district heating network to more businesses and homes. Their pilot project at Owen Square Park stores summer heat from the air in the ground, using air source heat pumps powered by solar panels, and then pipes heat into buildings when needed.

Meanwhile Clifton Climate Action is working to support small businesses with energy efficiency measures, Melville from Bristol Energy Network says. “What we do as a network is link them up with each other, so people can get to know people in other parts of the city and share skills and resources.”

But community groups agree that more support or funding is needed for them to grow. “It was a mistake at national level to stop the feed-in tariff [subsidy scheme] as the community energy sector was growing,” says Melville.

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Support could involve either projects receiving a special price for the electricity they produce, or a mechanism allowing communities to use the power generated locally, she adds. 

She says the council should ensure communities are able to be involved in the City Leap project, to increase its impact, harness local creativity and ensure everyone can have a say.

Tudgey, who also works for the Bristol Energy Network, says that community projects have an important role in a fair climate transition, going beyond what’s easy and profitable. “Community energy groups can look at how can we get to net zero, how can we make jobs, how can we make it fair.”

“There’s a huge amount of innovation in community energy. It’s driven by local people using their skills to tackle the climate emergency,” he says. “We need an energy revolution: we are doing our best but we need to scale it up across the country.”

“We’re doing a huge amount of innovation to make [the turbine] project work, but if we want more projects like this one it can’t be this hard.” 

If you would like to get involved in community energy or find out more, you can get in touch with Emilia Melville:

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