2 March 2018

On a very cold and snowy day in Birmingham, we met with a few very dedicated community energy folk who braved the weather to hear the latest developments and participate in shaping our changing energy system. Community Energy organisations Energise Barnsley and Community Energy England joined distribution network operator (DNO) Western Power Distribution (WPD) to discuss their thoughts on the best ways to make our energy system more democratic, decarbonised and decentralised.

Andy Heald, Director of Energise Barnsley talked about their ambitions for Barnsley utopia, a peer to peer trading platform with low carbon locally generated electricity. This solar community energy and local authority project began with the installation of 1.5MW of rooftop PV on 321 Berneslai Homes and 16 Barnsley Council schools and sheltered accommodation buildings. Their Barnsley Community Solar Bond is paying five per cent per annum for a five year term, and Energise Barnsley have a long term £1.2 million loan from the Charity Bank. Berneslai Homes tenants have saved over £70,000 on their electricity bills and over 1,600 tonnes of CO2 to date.

Solar PV was just the start for Energise Barnsley, they have a great track record of delivering impact and a good portfolio of assets. Driven by the end of subsidies for PV, they have applied to the Ofgem sandbox to trial a peer to peer trading and demand side response project, hoping to use the local distribution network as a local trading platform. Working with their Distribution Network Operator (DNO) they have applied for Network Innovation Allowance (NIA) funding for a two year project involving social housing. They plan to spend £300,000 on batteries, monitoring and data analysis with the aim of reducing tenants’ electricity bills, increasing energy awareness, and hopefully finding a financially viable model for community energy. For the DNO this project will help reduce the need for costly reinforcements to the network, help them understand the impact of PV and storage on network design, and absorb excess generation and supply peak load.

Their chosen trial site, the Willows, Oxspring in the Pennines, is a sleepy estate of mainly retired residents in housing association bungalows with Springvale School (22kWp) nearby. In 2015/6 Energise Barnsley applied to connect 32 PV systems on the houses, but could only connect 27 because of constraints on the network. They installed 40 batteries in 2017, 31 paired with PVs and nine on their own. The question is can the rejected and unsuitable homes be connected by a peer to peer platform, that could prevent green envy and distribute the savings on energy bills more evenly, to include the tenants without PV? Energise Barnsley want to provide customers with cheaper electricity through time shifting, protect them from future energy price rises, and gather granular data of generation, demand, export and energy patterns which will help them balance energy at a local level in the most efficient way. Energise Barnsley initially wanted the DNO to act at the accountant doing the checks and balances on how much energy each household used and should be billed, rather than having to contact each licenced supplier or work with only one, removing customer choice. Since then Barnsley Council have decided to set up their own white label energy supply company, so it’s likely the trial will use this as the licenced supply partner. This trial is set to start in June and we look forward to hearing more about it.

Achieving a Barnsley utopia is a work in progress and has highlighted some lessons for other communities looking to emulate their success and plans. The key, as always, is in having a few highly committed individuals who have the skills and ambition to get stuff done. They also have the full strength of the local authority partnership behind them, and on top of this, they have collaborated with their DNO to work on a mutually beneficial project that enables them to access the funding needed through the NIA.

As WPD develops from a fairly passive DNO to a Distribution System Operator (DSO) they will increasingly involve communities in their trials, interact more with customers and look to trial flexibility services for local energy markets to achieve balancing between supply and demand. WPD will be consulting and publishing a paper on flexibility this summer, and in the meantime will be continuing to engage with communities and local energy stakeholders through more events, connections surgeries and online tools and resources. They are also involving communities through their innovation trials. For example, Electric Nation explores the impact of electric vehicles (EVs) on the network and is helping develop tools to plan and be ready for more EVs in future.  Plugs and Sockets is WPD’s strand of the Cornwall Local Energy Markets project, which is developing a flexibility platform that will enable prosumers to trade consumption or generation to benefit a third party. Another WPD project, Open LV, is about developing apps to access and share data from local low voltage substations, which will enable community energy groups access local substation demand data. Academics and communities have been invited to come forward with ideas for how the data and apps could be used and developed.

These are just a few of the ways you can engage and collaborate with your DNO to help you achieve your own energy utopia.

Author: Jodie Giles, senior project manager - communities

Email: [email protected]