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Five steps to developing a community-based energy project

Mary Walsh, The Ecologist
A practical guide to help would-be community developers turn renewable energy projects into climate change-busting reality

Recent years have seen more and more community-owned energy-generation projects. Expressly supported by the Coalition Agreement and with the arrival of feed-in tariffs, it’s looking ever more attractive for local communities to harness their collective energy and become renewable developers.

But just how easy is it to do? How do you turn a local community group into a project developer?

Make no mistake, energy projects are infrastructure developments with multiple moving parts. Not an easy task at the best of times, but even less so for a community group with no track record. It can be done, however. By focusing on a number of key strategic areas, and getting the basics right, there is scope for success.

1. Who are we?

The first key action is to get organised – a good idea and an enthusiastic bunch of people can only go so far. In dealing with third parties, it pays to have a structure. From a practical point of view, having people with defined roles and responsibilities provides efficiencies in how to work and prevents duplication. From a legal point of view, having a vehicle through which the project is managed places project assets and liabilities in one place and protects those involved from personal liability.

…2. Support from the top

Local authorities and MPs can be key in developing a successful project. Councils have resources which community groups can tap. Get your local councillors and MP on board with the plan – having a vote of confidence from those with sway will bring an added element of strength to the proposal and open up opportunities not normally available to start-ups.

With all political parties now voicing support for community-owned renewable projects, support should be forthcoming. Just don’t forget to ask.

…3. Getting connected

The number of stakeholders involved in making the project happen can be frightening. First and foremost there is the landowner: is he or she going to be happy with your project? Then there are regulatory bodies, such as the Environment Agency and Local Authorities, contractors and suppliers, interest groups and funders – the list goes on. Getting people on board can be one of the toughest challenges. Project managers can find themselves taking a crash course in diplomacy and negotiation.

…4. Managing the risks

You will need to have arrangements in place that eliminate, mitigate or allocate risks. Be self-aware: it’s unlikely you will have all the expertise within your team, so make sure you find it from the best possible providers and seek out people who can help get your project off the ground. You need the right people managing the right stages of the process if everything is to fit into place.

…5. Getting funded

In the current financial climate this may seem an impossibility, but take heart from the multitude of possible funding options available. From grant funding for early stage development to philanthropic investments, share issues and debt finance, an energy project with strong financials will be able to access funding. Start by speaking to NESTA, the Carbon Trust and the Community Sustainable Energy Programme. Attend events that connect projects with potential investors, run by organisations such as EcoConnect or your local development agency.

Proving a point

Like it or not, there is still a perception among some bodies that community groups are at best naïve, or at worst incapable. Relieve them of that notion from the offset. Set out a professional offering, a strong structure and an efficient modus operandi and you will set the scene for a successful venture. Be aware of all the various aspects of your project and engage with others from as early a stage as possible.

The future looks local. It’s time to get involved…
(17 August 2010)
Part of the Ecologist’s great How to Make a Difference article series. While this article is pretty specific to the UK, there should be similar models to follow in the US for setting up community energy projects. A good summary of the pros and cons of community energy projects is here. -KS

Dream kitchen of the future is green, survey finds

Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian
It is likely to boast the kind of advanced technology seen in Star Trek voyages; but new research into what consumers expect from their dream kitchen in 30 years’ time also indicates a strong desire for a “return to nature”.

New research carried out by the retailer Ikea into consumers’ “must-have” features in their 2040 kitchen reveals that the room will remain the hub of the family.

But householders in the UK and Ireland also say they want a kitchen with built-in energy efficiency that is inherently a “green” space in which the garden and kitchen merge, allowing food to be grown in both areas. Consumers also say they want reclaimed and recycled materials as standard for their kitchen products.

A report based on the research, and due to be discussed at a debate at the Barbican today, explores the factors that will power the transformation of the kitchen. “The kitchen will come to embody a move towards sustainable living and be a measure of how people adapt to changes in society,” it says.

The survey, conducted in June this year, questioned 1,895 respondents in the UK and an additional 751 in the Republic of Ireland. It predicts a gradual and sustained move towards conscientious – rather than conspicuous – consumption.

Consumers said they wanted a kitchen which will galvanise the home production of organic, natural food and promote the grow-your-own movement in homes and communities…
(12 August 2010)
How encouraging if true, not the Star Trek bit so much which could be fun, but probably not practical in a resource-constrained future, but the “galvanising of home production of organic, natural food”… -KS

Reusing bike parts to power water pumps, corn crushers and more

Mira Olson, the ecologist
A tiny workshop in rural Guatemala is pioneering cheap, eco-friendly, pedal-powered machines made from discarded bicycle parts

A group of elderly, indigenous women wearing traditional hand-made dresses sit in a circle and exchange stories. Their continuous pedalling would go unnoticed, were it not for the noisy churning of the blenders placed on top of tables in front of them. The machines have enabled these women to form their own business: the sale of blue agave shampoo produced at their humble, cinderblock home.

The pedal-powered blenders are capable of speeds of up to 6,400 RPM and are used in multiple capacities in the community, from simple food processing to more creative applications.

They are but one example of several bicimáquinas (bike-machines) designed and built at Maya Pedal, a locally-run NGO in the small, rural town of San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala, which is still primarily inhabited by the Mayan people of Cakchiquel descent.

Thanks to the organisation, community members benefit from water pumps to irrigate their fields, mills to grind corn, devices for manufacturing concrete tiles, electricity generators capable of storing electricity in car batteries, coffee pulping machines that can accumulate up to 8000 pounds daily, trikes and trailers to transport people and goods within the community, and even three-cycle washing machines, all operated essentially while exercising.

A revolutionary machine

The NGO itself is the product of a collaboration that took place in 1997 between a group of Canadians from the organisation Pedal and local mechanic Carlos Marroquín. Jointly, they created what would be Maya Pedal’s first and arguably most revolutionary machine: the bicidesgranadora de maíz, a device that removes the kernels from up to 15 corn husks per minute, allowing farmers to bag up to two dozen 43-kilo sacks per day…
(15 July 2010)
Another one of the How to Make a Difference articles that just had to be pulled out by itself. Good old human creativity…-KS

How Will Small Businesses Survive Peak Oil?

Sami Grover, treehugger

From Yahoo to Virgin, big business is waking up to the threat of peak oil. So much so, that Virgin bross Richard Branson believes we should be mobilizing for peak oil as if for war. But what about the little guy? It’s often assumed that because peak oil will make global shipping a challenge, that we’ll just transition back to smaller, more local economies. I suspect the truth will be a little more complicated than that.

…Started as part of the Transition Towns movement that is offering a community-led approach to planning for climate change and peak oil, Transition Training and Consulting is working with businesses and non-profits to offer comprehensive “Energy Resilience Assessments”, and then develop strategies for broadening revenue streams and eliminating over reliance on fossil fuels or vulnerable economic models. Early clients have included a National Trust stately home, and a kayak and canoe business—and the team are currently looking for willing UK businesses to trial some of their other offerings…

(9 August 2010)