Power to the people
This is a story of how a community created its own energy company. It began with an Open Space workshop run by Transition Town Lewes mid-2007 called How will Lewes power itself (in a world without fossil fuels)? The discussions were varied, and one focused on starting a local energy company. Howard Johns, who convened that group, had his own small solar company – Southern Solar - and, being a permaculturalist, had a big vision for our town.
Soon after, the group learned that the local council was tendering for a service to distribute a domestic renewable energy grant scheme for devices such as solar water and wood burning stoves. They put in the bid – and won. Ovesco – the Ouse Valley Energy Services Company – was born. One of the directors – Chris Rowland – was willing to manage the non-profit company, for a part time salary and four others became directors. The key players - an engineer, a company CEO, a composer, a university lecturer - had no previous experience of running a local Esco – few people did – but loads of passion for it.
For the next three years Ovesco’s main line of work was distributing these grants. To date they’ve installed over 200 energy generating devices. Ovesco has also, funded by the council, given free insulation advice and signposting for insulation for grants to over 1,000 people across the district. During this time, Ovesco directors also ran three Energy Fairs in the local precinct, with suppliers and talks, and helped TTL’s energy group run three Eco Open House weekends, showcasing energy savings in a range of real homes. There have been many invitations to talks, conferences and events and opportunities to try the energy bike invented by director Nick Rouse.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. The work load was huge, grant funding was changeable and Chris was doing a lot of work for free. But it meant he didn’t have to commute and said he was glad to have given up his commuting job and be living and working locally.
A couple of years ago, when the government introduced the feed-in-tariffs that offered subsidies for solar photovotaics, Ovesco started to work up the case for a large solar array in town. Surveys showed the biggest roof belonged to the warehouse of our local brewer, Harveys. After much measuring and negotiation, Ovesco was ready to raise the money. But suddenly the government announced it was cutting short the offer and that solar installations would have to be up and running within three months. It was a stretch but the directors decided to go ahead and book the Town Hall. The only slot was a month ahead and they had to create prospectuses, get agreements from the financial and legal bodies and start to make the case to the community. Bear in mind, this was totally new territory for everyone. Liz Mandeville, the university lecturer, wrote the prostpectus meticulously. This was a 25-year financial project; nobody wanted to let down our community.
As it was, Ovesco raised much more than the £306,000 required – within three weeks (about a quarter had been pledged before the launch event) and despite all sorts of fears, the 585 panel, 98 KwH roof went up just in time to meet the government deadline. We called it Britain’s first community-owned solar power station and we had a good party to celebrate.
Ovesco immediately began feasibility studies for three more major projects – two on schools and one on a community centre. But just as it was ready to launch another share offer, the government once again decided to cut short the feed-in-tariffs, effectively cutting Ovesco - and so many other community power stations – off at the legs. At the moment all those projects are in limbo while the legal process continues. This lack of government commitment to renewable has been a massive problem for Ovesco and many other pioneers – and I’ve felt quite shocked at the way this has been handled.
Meanwhile, Ovesco has finally, after many years of seeking national funding and attending pointless conferences run by quangos – sorry – government-run agencies - been given funding through the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Leaf grant stream, for a feasibility study for a combined heat and power and solar power project in Lewes. This funding will keep the show on the road for another few months.
The main challenge for Ovesco has been that it has always been dependent on grant funding. At present, there is not yet an obvious business case for funding community-run energy companies. It seems that grid parity for solar pv is only about two years away, though, at which point, Ovesco could start to compete with national companies on solar projects (depending on what goal posts are changed by then). Perhaps this is why the government has been under so much pressure from the big energy companies to curtail the success of small and community energy companies. Fossil fuels and nuclear power are subsidised by central government at a massively higher rate than are renewables, despite what tabloid press has to say. It’s all about power and who owns it.
But despite the government’s determination to maintain centralized control over provision of our energy supplies, there is much we begin to do, now, as ordinary people, as the story of Ovesco so vibrantly shows.
If you want to start your own community energy company, have a look at Ovesco’s useful toolkit here.
Photos: Open Space closing circle (Adrienne), Eco Open House event (Dirk Campbell), Ovesco directors with Harveys director on solar roof (Hudoq)