Community energy in action – where pioneers lead, others will follow; How Sussex communities are showing leadership on tackling the climate emergency
The public conversation around climate change has evolved dramatically over the last few years.
Not so long ago, talk about rising sea levels and global warming was the preserve of ‘environmentalists’ and ‘eco-warriors’. Nowadays, platforms like the BBC and Netflix have regular features on our changing climate, and groups like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future have brought the crisis into our schools and onto our streets.
As a result of such public pressure, many Local Authorities, as well as the UK Government, have declared a climate emergency and set targets to become carbon neutral within the next 10 to 30 years.
It comes as little surprise of course that some local Councils who have declared a climate emergency have yet to do very much about it. Most Local Authorities don't have the resources to invest in this comprehensive challenge, which is a significant diversion from their historic role and core business.
Other towns and villages however have taken bold first steps on their journey to net zero, demonstrating that where there is earnest willingness and public support, real change is possible.
The following are just a few examples of communities in Sussex who have declared a climate emergency and are taking decisive action to solve it.
BHESCo Heat Network – Firle Village
There are 2.5 million properties across the UK which are not connected to the gas grid, so it is vital to find replicable solutions to get homes away from oil, a large contributor to climate change and air pollution.
For several years, Brighton & Hove Energy Services Co-op (BHESCo) have been working with the Firle Estate to design and install a shared heat network for this ‘off-the-gas-grid’ village.
Following a feasibility study financed through the Rural Community Energy Fund, a pilot project has been approved to decarbonise the first seven properties in the village.
To transition the homes away from using oil as a heat source, BHESCo have recommended installing a series of heat pumps which can be connected to form a micro heat-network.
However, before any low-carbon heating systems can be installed, it is first essential to ensure that properties are made as energy efficient as possible (known as taking a ‘fabric-first’ approach).
BHESCo are currently holding a community share offer to finance the energy efficiency improvements for the first properties that will be connected to the heat network.
‘CommuniHeat’ Project - Barcombe
Barcombe is home to a pioneering new venture called ‘CommuniHeat’ which is being undertaken by local community energy co-op OVESCo and the Distribution Network Operator for the South East, UK Power Networks.
Barcombe is a rural village where homes are not connected to the national gas grid. This means that most households in the area rely on oil or Liquid Petroleum Gas for heating, both major contributors to climate change.
To find the best solution, the CommuniHeat Project is installing 600 smart energy meters to gather data over a two-year period which will build a picture of the heating requirements of the village. The project partners can then run simulations to understand which clean heating technologies will deliver the most cost-effective results, in addition to predicting the effect that these technologies will have on the electricity network.
Riding Sunbeams Community Solar Farm – Aldershot & Berwick
Riding Sunbeams is a world first initiative to power railway lines with electricity sourced directly from track-side solar panels.
Founded by the climate charity Possible and Community Energy South, the Riding Sunbeams project completed a first trial of powering the rail lines with solar power in 2019 with a 100 panel installation outside Aldershot train station.
Following the success of this trial, the project has now secured funding for a 3.75 MegaWatt community solar farm in Berwick, north of Eastbourne, which is expected to be supplying power to the rail network by March 2022. Once completed, a community share offer will enable to the project to be owned by local residents and the train commuters who use the network.
Riding Sunbeams estimate that each MW of solar capacity connected to the rail traction system will deliver annual carbon savings of around 245 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
How community energy groups are leading the way to net zero
When comparing a map of areas that have declared a climate emergency to a map of areas that have an active community energy group, it becomes very clear that those locations with a ‘boots on the ground’ community energy organisation are making much greater progress towards their carbon reduction goals.
As the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate conference in November 2021, it is essential for decision makers to recognise that community energy organisations are a valuable asset of clean energy experts who have consistently delivered big wins for the people they serve, helping to secure clean, affordable energy for communities.
As independent social enterprises, they will hold Local Authorities to account on their carbon emissions strategies and can act as a trusted intermediary on behalf of local residents.
Community energy groups are likely to have the hands on experience and understanding of the technical and financial complexity required to deliver clean energy projects that may be missing in their Local Authority or Parish Council.
For all these reasons, we believe that towns and cities who have declared a climate emergency must work with their local community energy group to achieve their net zero goals together, for the benefit of their communities and the future of the planet.