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Community Energy in Lewes

Ouse Valley Energy Supply Company, or Ovesco as it is commonly known, is a powerful inspiration for enthusiasts of community renewable energy. In August I was given a guided tour of Ovesco projects by Chris Rowland, which you can see here, and then filmed Chris explaining the origins of Ovesco and outlining some of their projects. You can view the second film here.

Solar PV on the roof at Harvey's BrewerySolar PV on the roof at Harvey's BreweryStanding on a hill above Lewes you can not only see the solar PV installations completed by Ovesco but also arrays of panels inspired by their projects. The local football club, the leisure centre and many local homes, have all followed the example of Ovesco. Other sites are looking to follow and there are also plans for community wind and hydro-electric schemes.

The Ovesco website is a rich source of information and links for community renewable energy projects and is well worth a visit.

Schools have benefitted from Ovesco's solar PV installationsSchools have benefitted from Ovesco's solar PV installationsBelow is an edited version of an article on the OVESCO website.

Power to the people of Lewes

In 2007 Transition Town Lewes held an Open Space workshop called ‘How will Lewes power itself (in a world without fossil fuels)?’ One discussion 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 winning bid and 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 and a university lecturer, had no previous experience of running a local ESCO. But they did have passion!

For the next three years Ovesco’s main line of work was distributing grants. To date they’ve installed over 200 energy generating devices. Ovesco also, funded by the council, gave free insulation advice and signposting for insulation 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 the Transition Town Lewes 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 easy. The work load was huge, grant funding was changeable and Chris was doing a lot of work for free.

A couple of years ago, when the government introduced the feed-in-tariffs that offered subsidies for solar photovotaics, OVESCO started to develop case for a large solar array in town. Surveys showed the biggest roof belonged to the warehouse of the 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 their community.

Within three weeks OVESCO raised far more than the £306,000 required and the 585 panel, 98 KwH roof went up just in time to meet the government deadline. They called it Britain’s first community-owned solar power station and had a party to celebrate.

The main challenge for Ovesco has been dependency on grant funding. At present, there is no obvious business case for funding community-run energy companies. However, it seems that grid parity for solar pv is getting close, at which point OVESCO could start to compete with national companies on solar projects. 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.

If you want to start your own community energy company, have a look at OVESCO’s toolkit.

Editorial Notes: From the author: During 2011 and 2012 I’ll be visiting community renewable energy projects around the UK and Ireland. The aim is to gather information and present it in ways that inspire, inform and help others to initiate renewable energy projects – the three i’s. I’ll be filming the projects and interviews with key activists to give a flavour of the human story as well as the technical and planning obstacles that had to be overcome. There will also be links to project websites and all the suppliers, installers and enablers that can make the difference between a successful outcome and just another might have been.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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