Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Energy Stories Library item 19 Aug 2017

Turning ambitions into reality

It has been claimed that Oxfordshire is the county with the greatest concentration of community energy groups in the country. If this is the case, the Low Carbon Hub have been instrumental in helping these groups turn many of their renewable ambitions into reality.

Called “one of the most important community energy organisations in the UK”, by the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt , it was launched in 2011 after several communities across the county had begun to develop their own small scale solar renewable projects.

The hubs broad mission was to offer support to the increasing range of communities, businesses and schools across Oxfordshire keen to develop their own electricity schemes in which local people could invest in a form of energy that would not only reduce carbon emissions but also generate an income with profits going to support more green energy projects and also other community initiatives.

This is also combined with an ongoing project to help engender behavioural change and alleviate fuel poverty.

The hub have also worked with local councils across the county and to date helped realise 36 renewable energy projects including solar and hydo-electricity schemes generating over 2MW of electricity. There are now 28 local groups involved and 650 investors who have contributed over £2m.

The latest scheme has helped the community of Sandford on Thames develop the largest ever hydro-electricity scheme ever completed on this iconic river, installing three hydro electric turbines that generate enough electricity to power 75 per cent of Sandford’s homes. The hub have helped raise over £1.2m through a community share offer and project managed the construction process, including planning applications and the range of complicated logistical processes to put the three turbines in place.

Saskya Huggins, from Oxford, has been working for the hub since it began. The mother of two’s own energy journey began during science classes at school when she learnt about the hockey stick curve showing the sharp increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and how that had risen sharply since the industrial revolution.

Following the completion of a science degree and working in international development she took part in a local community project to encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint by 10%. This led the group to explore the idea of putting solar panels on public buildings, such as schools, to generate renewable energy, reduce their footprint and generate an income stream that could be reinvested in community action projects.

The ball began rolling as a number of community groups around Oxford joined forces. Installing solar panels through local investment on a building, supplying it with cheaper energy whilst also offering financial benefits to the local community became their business model.

Saskya said: “We would persuade a local building owner to host panels on their roof; they would get discounted electricity but we would own the panels having raised the money for them through local investment and then some of the surplus income would go back to the local investors but the remainder would be fed back into Oxfordshire communities.”

This was the opportunity for local people to take action on a global issue and it became so popular that the group were inundated with requests for advice leaving little time to get on with the business of developing these projects. With an intelligent energy grant from the EU and support from the local council and businesses, the Local Carbon Hub was born.

There is a helpdesk for people interested in community energy and grants are made available for low carbon initiatives, The influence of the hub now stretches beyond the county boundary. They share their knowledge with those looking for advice nationally and academics and universities, both in the UK and abroad, interested in how this community business model has developed.

Their people’s power station initiative maps the renewables installations across Oxfordshire to show the cumulative effect if people taking action focussing on generation but also want to start energy efficiency mapping.

Saskya added: “The impact we can have with carbon savings is a drop in the ocean compared to scale of the issue we are facing. We have to use our experience to inform others if we are going to have a wider impact. It’s all about people working together to achieve a cumulative action.”

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