A Community With Energy

| Maria Passingham

This quarter I got hit by a big electricity bill. It made me think about how much energy I’m using and more importantly, where that energy is coming from. As the climate crisis becomes harder and harder to brush under the carpet many of us are considering our personal influence – long-haul flights, plastic-wrapped food, and traditional, unsustainable, dirty energy sources. 

The go-to response is to ask how much difference one person or household can really make, and talk about corporate responsibility, or blanket change enforced by government. But it doesn’t have to be either extreme – there are ways to meet in the middle.

In Oxfordshire, the Low Carbon Hub is proving that with collaboration, co-ordination and progressive-thinking, a community working together can effect change, influence higher powers, and benefit themselves in the same move.

Since its launch in late 2011, the Low Carbon Hub has been working with schools, businesses, and communities within the county to generate clean energy while strengthening the local economy and increasing the efficiency of its residents’ homes and workplaces.

Founded by Dr Barbara Hammond, who previously headed up the UK’s renewable energy programme in Government, the Low Carbon Hub (LCH) was set up to increase energy generation and reduce demand, and to make Oxfordshire a positive example to the rest of the UK.

In their manifesto in 2016, Hammond and her team shared that Oxfordshire spends around £1.5 billion on energy in a year; money that leaves the local economy and goes directly to the big energy companies, many of which are owned by foreign companies. On top of that, energy is wasted because houses are poorly maintained and insulated, so in a sense the community suffers a double loss. More money is spent on energy than needs to be, and that money leaves (and therefore never benefits) the local economy. 

The Low Carbon Hub’s solution is an all-in, circular model that connects previously distinct areas and members of the community to work together in order to reverse the status quo. 

Energy generation

So, first up there’s the actual energy itself. LCH partners with organisations to work out how existing spaces or resources can be better used. Roofs of schools and factories are under-utilised spaces which can hold rows of high quality solar panels, and power and latent heat can be harnessed from rivers and lakes. They want to generate clean and renewable energy locally, working to a ‘little and often’ model rather than one huge centralised power station.

LCH are now working with 29 schools across the county to capture rooftop solar energy, and in total have 43 renewable energy installations currently in action. One of these is solar power panels on the Oxford Bus Company (OBC)’s roof space. OBC was keen to reduce its carbon emissions, but the cost of installing solar panels was unaffordable upfront, or even over a ten-year payment plan. LCH funded the installation and agreed to fund the maintenance over the full 20-25 year term, and in return are using the space to generate clean energy.

Energy supply and sales  

Of course, this energy then has to go somewhere. ‘Hosts’ of the panels are able to use their own energy (at a discount) and any surplus is sold back to the grid, where the LCH receives what’s known as a ‘feed-in tariff’, essentially a little government funding. Over time and across the many projects LCH manages to save businesses money and generate money which they reinvest locally (more below). 

Oxford Bus Company’s solar panels saves the organisation £5000 a year in electricity bills, and in three years generated 226,000 kilowatt hours – the equivalent of one of their buses making 3.5 carbon-free trips around the world. They also generated £12,000 for LCH in their first year.

Reinvesting and future-proofing

True to their inversion of all the things we’re used to, LCH don’t just take this money and pay their top dogs big bonuses, they plug it right back into the areas where they work, calling this capital ‘community benefit funds’. In 2018/19 the Low Carbon Hub’s projects created £141,000 in community benefit funds. 

In practice these funds go towards energy efficiency projects, support for low carbon community groups, energy audits for schools, help desk support and advice, and alleviating fuel poverty (where more than 10% of household income is spent on heating the home to an adequate standard). In 2015 11.9% of Oxford City households were in fuel poverty. In other areas of the county the figures are around 7%. 

So what happened to that £12K generated from the OBC’s solar panels? A project called Warming Barton was launched to provide support to nearby Barton which is in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. Energy Performance Assessments were carried out, identifying the potential for external wall insulation, which would save each household an average of £450 a year on their energy bills, and improve health and well-being at the same time.

Of course, the initial installations, the management and maintenance of projects, and all the office-work behind the scenes takes money, and Low Carbon Hub is a social enterprise. 

This is where Oxfordshire proves itself. As well as a huge amount of support from the city and county councils, LCH has built up a collection of 26 community group shareholders with stakes in the organisation and a shared determination “to tackle climate breakdown on a local level” says Beth McAllister from LCH. She also draws attention to the fact that Oxfordshire already has a critical mass of people working towards change:

“Oxfordshire is a special place when it comes to innovation and community action. It is the home of CAG Network, which is the largest network of community action groups in Europe. I think the mix of universities, forward-looking councils, and huge amount of social enterprises and small businesses means that there is a lot of energy in Oxfordshire to create a more sustainable future. We’re trying hard to bring all of these groups together, and to work together to make the changes we need.”

Beth McAllister, Low Carbon Hub.

To find out more about the Low Carbon Hub be sure to check our their manifesto and their projects.

Photos by Low Carbon Hub

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