How do I set up a community energy project?
Posted by Tasha Kosviner on 4 March 2015 at 9:20 am
First things first: the fact that you’re even asking this shows you’re ambitious and that is good. You are embarking on a thorny and complicated journey and there will be many challenges along the way. But take heart! It is a journey many others have successfully trodden before and help is at hand.
The government’s Rural Renewables Fund and the Urban Community Energy Fund in England and CARES in Scotland provide grants of up to £20,000 to help eligible community groups conduct initial feasibility studies into renewable energy projects. If the projects are proven to be viable, then a further £150,000 (£130,000 in Scotland) could be available to help you see it to fruition.
The initial grant will help pay for early surveys, the planning process and probably a consultant, to navigate the many technical, legal and financial hurdles you are facing.
But before this, there are a number of things you may like to consider. These steps are relevant mostly to solar and wind projects although many of the same principles will apply to other renewable energy schemes as well.
1. Land ownership
Who owns the land you wish to develop? If it is yours, that makes things easier. If you don’t know, the Land Registry will give you the answer. Then it’s down to you and your powers of persuasion to get them onside.
2. Resource analysis
How much sun or wind does your site get? Broadly – and rather obviously – speaking, a wind turbine needs to be exposed and a solar project shouldn’t be in the shade. The National Windspeed Database gives a very rough guide, and the Sheffield Solar Microgen Database will help you with sunlight analysis. However, this is just for your anecdotal information. Data will be collected in much more detail once you engage a consultant.
Typically a large wind turbine will be unlikely get planning permission if there are dwellings within 250m of the site in England and 2km in Scotland. A solar farm will be more likely to get permission if you can conceal it with clever hedging. Once you’re sure you’d like to proceed, it may be worth gently sounding out neighbours for potential opposition so you can address any concerns before planning.
4. Grid connection
There is many a wind-perfect hill in Scotland where the prohibitive cost of grid connection makes a turbine unviable. Talking to your local district network operator may help you to ascertain how easy connection will be. Remember the cost of connection will be borne by you so the further from the grid you are, the more expensive your project is going to be.
5. Site designation
Is your site of interest to other people? For example is it a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a wildlife preserve? Maps on your local authority’s website should tell you. If it’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or there are endangered species dwelling there, give up! If it is designated for something different, things may not be quite so definitive. In your conversations with the local planning officer (see number 7 below) be sure to ask what surveys may be required in order for you to proceed.
Wind turbines are massive, particularly their blades, so making sure you can get onto the site is far more than just ensuring gates are wide enough. Your consultant will, if necessary, analyse the entire route, from manufacturer – or port – to site. But there are other things you should consider at this stage. How much private land will your contractor need to cross? With whom will you need to negotiate right of access? Ideally you want a number of access options so you are not at the mercy of a single landowner.
Set up an informal meeting with your local planning officer. The officer will be able to give you a good idea of whether a project is likely to pass muster. They should also advise you about the designations on your site (see 5, above) and whether you need to engage any other bodies such as English Heritage or the Aviation Authority or commission any surveys, such as archaeological, or endangered species. Your local authority’s conservation officer is also a good person to get on side.
Here’s where you’ll probably need to call in the help. Organisations such as Energy4All among others help communities to decide what the best model is for their particular project. This could be to form a co-op, be part of a shared ownership scheme, join a regional cooperative model or take out a loan to proceed. They will also help you figure out the tax breaks and Feed-in Tariff so you can sell your electricity back to the grid and actually make money from your scheme.
Photo: Richard Peat
More information about Community Renewables on YouGen
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