Day 6 – Alan Hobbett, Community Power: The Imminent Revolution

Alan Hobbett is Senior Manager – Social Housing for Dunfermline Building Society. Before joining Dunfermline Building Society, he worked with the islanders of Gigha in the regeneration of their community-owned island, which included the creation of the UK’s first grid-connected, community-owned windfarm. Alan remains a voluntary Director of Gigha Renewable Energy Limited, the subsidiary company established by the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust to develop and manage the island’s windfarm. He is a voluntary Director of Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company Limited and las year became a founder Director of Ecology Centre Enterprises Ltd, a community-based social enterprise in Fife. Alan is currently involved in the establishment of a Community Energy Company for Edinburgh and acts as an editorial board advisor to Good Company magazine.

Alan-h.jpgFormer Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicol Stephen has said, ‘Scotland has the potential to become the renewable powerhouse of Europe. Development and application of renewable energy in Scotland could be more important to this country than the discovery of North Sea oil.’ Harnessing the power of the sea is not new to us; we’ve also been using wood for millennia, and we made good use of wind in developing trade links all across the world. We have a long, long use of renewable energy in our history. It was renewable energy that delivered the modern age — the coming of the Industrial Revolution came on the back of renewable energy. The River Clyde powered the wheels of the textile industry which was the first industry that heralded the modern industrial age in Scotland and the UK.

So perhaps we should not be surprised when a deputy first minister says that the development and application of renewable energy in Scotland could be more important to this country than the discovery of North Sea oil.

What then is this tremendous resource we have in Scotland? The country in Europe which has more than 25% of the enlarged European wind power is Scotland. This is a phenomenal, unmatched resource. It doesn’t just stop there. The Pentland Firth has tremendous power. If we thought we had alot of wind, we have even an greater source of tidal movement; something like 27% of tidal current resource for Europe resides around our shores. Professor Ian Bryden of Gordon University refers to Pentland Firth as an international standard of green energy resource capable of supplying all of Scotland’s electricity needs. The professor was quoted by current First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond when he referred to Scotland’s potential to become the Saudi Arabia of the renewables world. Of course, when the professor said that he was just talking about the tidal resource.

Off the west coast of Scotland and Ireland we have the tremendous wave resource to go with our tidal and wind resources. And there are others: solar and hydro. We’ve also got alot of trees with good potential for biomass generation — a resource very available for our use. The first wave of renewable use in the Highlands was with the hydro industry. Having said that, and with this phenomenal resource, there is no doubt we’ll get more large wind projects and tidal projects; large wave projects and large biomass projects. This will undoubtedly happen, but is bigger always better?

Most of our energy in Scotland actually comes from power stations which is very typical of the way we produce energy in Scotland and the UK. Very big units of production generating vast amounts of energy which are then transmitted across the country on a high voltage transmission system to the points of consumption where the transmission system interfaces with the local distribution network. That’s how we generally do it in Scotland.

Alan-i.jpgNow Gigha and Findhorn are slightly different because we’re not generating to the transmission system. We’re generating within the distribution system, the effect of which is offsetting power that would normally come in through the transmission system. Engineers call this embedded or decentralised generation. The benefits of this are:

* cheaper capital and revenue costs
* lower carbon emissions
* greater efficiencies
* lesser visual impact
* greater power equality
* improves operation of the grid
* reduces air pollution
* reduces dependence on imported fuels
* most importantly, it’s accessible to communities and within there is tremendous opportunity

In the 1970’s, British socialist politician, Tony Benn referred to Scotland as ‘an island of coal in the sea of oil.’ At the moment we’re importing more coal than we ever have done and we’re a net importer of oil and gas. So, decentralised generation of renewables reduces dependence on imported fuels.

Just how centralised are we in our production of electricity? About 8% is generated in a decentralised fashion. In the US it’s 5% and an average of 11% around the world. Denmark is the most decentralised of any at 55%.

If it’s possible, and it is because other countries have done it, and if it presents all these benefits that I’ve talked about, then why do we still have large centralised production? As is the answer to most things, it lies in our history. The history of electricity generation is about 100 years — not that old. As the industry developed in Scotland and the UK, it was in the context of fast, abundant supplies of cheap fossil fuels. As we moved through the century, it increasingly became more centralised until it became a state monopoly. In a state monopoly situation with abundant resources, efficiencies are not the primary driver. This has happened in many European nations.

The situation has changed. Alan’s view is that we have a once in a life-time opportunity over the next couple of decades. We’re going to be decommissioning huge parts of generation infrastructure — nuclear power stations, old coal powered generation, so what do we do and how do we do it? We need to look at the lessons of our neighbours who’ve decentralised. We’d create high levels of community ownership of production — very exciting.

So why hasn’t it happened?

* Is there a market? Yes! Ernst and Young regularly compares the best places to invest and the UK always comes near the top of the list.

* Is it because we have grid restrictions? Yes, but the point is that if communities are going to make significant sums, then you need grid connection. The embedded challenges are less.

* Is it because renewable energy is not popular? No, it’s very popular in Scotland and windmills are the least controversial things we do. There is a landscape issue, but the vast majority of people favour extension of renewable regeneration in Scotland. The nearer you live to a windfarm, the greater the level of public support.

* Is it because it’s not commercially viable. No, as a banker Alan thinks it’s very viable, but subsidies are limited.

Even in a situation where there are compelling arguments, could it happen?

If our current leaders were to say, ‘There will be community power,’ Alan feels there would be.

Alan-a.jpgAlan closed with a story about the resilience of the Isle of Gigha. Willie Bowles McSporran has lived all his life on the Isle, is chairman of the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust and one of the directors of Gigha Renewable Energy Ltd. Willie had no doubt about the potential of the community ownership to transform the island upon which he lived and that he’d seen gradually dying over a number of decades. The population had halved in 30 years. In the 10 years before community ownership, 1 in 4 people had left. Where there used to be 30 children in the school, there were only 6. This was a community that was dying.

Willie, his colleagues and the islanders recognised that through community ownership they would be able to turn that island around and they have done. The population has increased in 6 years by 70%. There are now 26 children in the school. The islanders have repaid 1 million of public money, they’ve opened the first community-owned windfarm in the UK, they’ve opened a quarry, 27 houses have been built in that period when only 1 had been built in the last 30 years. Their windmills, fondly named the dancing ladies of Gigha, are a very important part of that. For without them the Isle of Gigha was not financially sustainable. They’ve pushed the island into financial sustainability and with that have transformed the experience of their community. So an island that had one of the greatest rates of population decline of any Scottish island now has the greatest rate of growth of any Scottish island. When Alan first went to live there and realised the enormity of the task this community has taken on for themselves, Willie said, ‘Don’t worry, Alan, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but then I wasn’t the chairman.’

– Mattie Porte –

Photographer: Sverre Koxvold

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