The WREN stand and SuperWREN are fixtures at local events in Wadebridge. Credit: WREN

Cornwall has some of the best renewable resources in Europe, including sun, wind, tide, wave, geothermal and biomass – yet most of the energy that towns like Wadebridge use comes from far-off energy companies.

Since its creation in 2011 this co-operatively owned social enterprise has rapidly galvanised residents and businesses in the 8,000-strong market town to get involved in generating their own energy – and using it wisely. To date 6.5MW of renewable energy has been installed.

Key to achieving our low-carbon vision is to teach communities how to generate their own energy and use it more efficiently. WREN has achieved remarkable results in a very short space of time. By demonstrating the tangible financial, environmental and social benefits involved in moving to a low-carbon economy, WREN makes a persuasive case for other towns to get energy smart.

Ashden judging panel

Background

Putting the UK on a sustainable energy footing will require changes to many aspects of our infrastructure, economy and everyday life, but these are unlikely to happen without widespread involvement of communities, and the individuals, businesses and community groups within them.

Wadebridge is a town of 8,300 in Cornwall, where Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) was established with the goal of including the whole community in a move towards sustainable energy, by exploiting under-used renewable energy resources in the area for the benefit of local people.

Local farming families have installed solar to save on bills and generate income

The organisation

WREN was launched in January 2011, and registered as a co-operative in April the same year. In 2013 it employed two people, with over 5,000 volunteer hours being contributed by the community each year. It is registered as an Industrial and Provident Society for Community Benefit. The 2012-13 turnover was about £115,000, including a grant from the Coastal Communities Fund for £100,000 over two years. WREN operates in Wadebridge and the adjoining parishes of St Breock and Egoshayle, but also works closely with Cornwall Council and other regional and national bodies that have an interest in local sustainable energy.

The programme

WREN was started by a group of volunteers who believe that energy could become a collective asset to the community, rather than a cost to individuals. They saw that Wadebridge and the surrounding region had significant renewable energy resources (sun, wind, hydro and woodland), yet was importing most of its energy at significant cost, and resolved to change this.

WREN have been a beacon for us, showing others what can be achieved. We think what WREN have done is the only way Cornwall can deliver on its goal of being a low-carbon leader.

Steve Ford, Green Cornwall

WREN was concerned that many ‘green’ initiatives engage only the people who are already interested in sustainability, so it took a different approach. While acknowledging the global problem of CO2 emissions and climate change, WREN mainly argues its case for local sustainable energy on the benefits that will be experienced locally. These include savings on energy bills, new sources of income, jobs being created, self-sufficiency and better security of supply.

Engaging the community

WREN has used local issues to engage people in and around the town; concerns about energy costs and employment opportunities are very real and concrete, and can galvanise people into action when they are presented with a viable alternative. Trust is an important factor; WREN managed to get several respected and well-known members of the community involved early on, enabling them to pose the question ‘Who would you prefer your energy to come from? Your own roof-tops, local farmers and businesses, or Russia and Qatar?'

WREN was launched at a town meeting, and over 600 people attended, out of a population of about 8,300 (including St Breock and Egoshayle), showing the level of interest that had been generated even before much action had been taken. As well as working to get technology installed to generate and save energy, WREN has made sure that people are having fun too, participating in events such as an outdoor ‘Family Fun Day’ and the town carnival, where their float starred ‘SuperWREN’ and was towed by an electric vehicle.

Energy shop

In December 2011, WREN took a big step forward in community engagement by opening their ‘Energy Shop’ in the town centre which is open to the public for four hours per day, Monday to Saturday. People visit for advice on energy or to find out about grants and the various offers that WREN has negotiated with renewable energy installers. The shop is also used for themed drop-in events throughout the year on topics such as:

  • ‘Sun Days on Saturdays’ to make PV and solar thermal technologies accessible
  • ‘Insulate before you generate’ to offer Green Deal presentations and displays, including free Green Deal assessments
  • Family days, including Climate Week sessions for children to come and make relevant displays for the Energy Shop
  • Renewable heating and local biomass supply chains
  • E-transport and car clubs

Having a physical presence on the high street is important for WREN, as it makes people aware that it means business and is making long-term plans. The shop window is also important, as it provides an ideal place to advertise events and offers.

Renewable energy technology

WREN has attracted people through the idea that owning renewable generation technology both saves and earns money. WREN’s role in increasing the use of local renewable resources has been to act as a facilitator rather than an installer. For example:

  • WREN has developed a formal procurement process to establish partnerships with installers, whom it vets to ensure the quality of their work and that terms and conditions are fair. It promotes renewable energy technologies and passes appropriate leads to the installers, who then put in competitive tenders for the work. Because WREN deals with several installers, it is able to remain an independent source of information and advice. From the point of view of households and businesses, they can start their enquiries with a single point of contact and know that they will get the best price available.
  • WREN has organised a local buying group for the Renewable Heat Premium Payments phase 2 (RHPP2) Communities Scheme. It has passed qualified leads to its approved installers to provide competitive quotes, and managed the paperwork to obtain grants for participating households.
  • Through its work and connections with local households and business, WREN has been able to provide advice and information to encourage larger renewable energy installations, such as PV farms and large biomass boilers.

Energy efficiency and behaviour change

WREN has promoted renewable energy generation to attract people, but it has not neglected the significant savings that can be made from energy efficiency and behaviour change. WREN offered free insulation for lofts and cavity walls under the CERT (Carbon Emissions Reduction Target) programme, and it is developing a similar scheme using the new ECO (Energy Company Obligation) programme. It has also promoted low-energy lighting at its shop and at public events, and given businesses assistance in selecting the best types of lighting when making upgrades. WREN is also encouraging households to change behaviour to use less energy through leaflets indicating how much money could be saved by taking simple actions such as air-drying clothes or turning the heating down a little.

Supporting the local economy and benefiting the environment is not just about electricity and heating, it’s about where food comes from too

How much does it cost and how do users pay?

Renewable energy technology is paid for by the installing household or business, while domestic insulation has been provided free of charge through CERT/ECO.

Individuals and businesses can join WREN for just £1, and are encouraged to help with WREN’s work. Members can also vote on the use of the community fund, which spends income from energy projects for community benefit. WREN has a self-imposed limit of 40% of income being used to cover running costs, with the rest going into the community fund. The current sources of income are:

  • Contributions from partner companies when renewable energy equipment is installed with WREN’s facilitation. In some cases contributions towards setup costs have also been made by partners.
  • Payment for managing community funds associated with large local renewable energy installations.
  • A management fee for RHPP2 renewable heat installations, and for CERT/ECO insulation installations.
  • Grants from sources such as the Coastal Communities Fund, the Local Energy Assessment Fund, and Cornwall Council.

A proportion of the contribution made by the installation partner is also passed to the customer in the form of the local currency, known as the Wren (see text box).

Achievements

WREN now has about 850 members, or 10% of the population of the Wadebridge, which is a very significant achievement for a community energy initiative. There have also been an estimated 2,000 visitors to the energy shop, 760 people at school workshops and 900 people at other events. This strong and growing base of supporters has enabled WREN to facilitate significant renewable energy and efficiency installations, as shown in the table below (end April 2013).

In addition to the installations above, WREN played a role in facilitating two large solar PV schemes (total 5.2 MW) and three commercial biomass systems, (total 510 kW). WREN support helped to secure approval to re-power the nearby 21-year old St Breock wind farm, which will raise its capacity from 4.95 MW to 10 MW by 2014.

Environmental benefits

Renewable generation and energy saving cut greenhouse gas emissions. Estimated savings to date are shown in the table above and total about 480 tonnes/year CO2. This does not include savings from behavioural change: the monitoring programme that is under development will give more insight into these.

Social benefits

Much of WREN’s work is aimed at facilitating financial benefits to the community, both households and businesses, and its involvement in social events in the town certainly brings an element of fun to what could otherwise be a fairly dry and serious subject. Its work with schools has had a similar effect, engaging both children and adults through practical workshops on different types of renewable energy and considering what they would change to make Wadebridge more ‘green’.

Stephen Frankel, Chair of the WREN board, on a hill overlooking Wadebridge

WREN has also used some of its community fund to help in practical ways, such as supporting the town Food Bank’s work, including providing low energy light bulbs to be distributed with food parcels by the town Food Bank, and a donation to help the Girl Guides develop a new building to high environmental standards.

Economic and employment benefits

The Wadebridge area spends an estimated £10m per year on electricity and heating, but households and businesses with renewable energy or energy efficiency equipment are saving on energy bills and earning money through feed-in-tariff payments. The total savings and earnings for the installations WREN has been directly involved with comes to over £300,000 a year, on top of over £150,000 received in grants. Once the wind farm repowering is complete, WREN will also be administering a total of over £50,000 a year in community funds.

We are building a bottom up system of decentralised/distributed provision, with no resources other than our conviction, in an ordinary town with no history of interest in environmental issues.

Stephen Frankel, Chair, WREN

WREN has created two internal jobs, and jobs have also been supported at the partner companies carrying out installations, with some recruiting extra staff to handle the increased demand.

The future

WREN has facilitated more renewable energy capacity in the first five months of 2013 than in the previous two years, and aims to have 30% of Wadebridge’s electricity supplied by locally based community-owned renewables by 2015, and 100% by 2020 (under any ownership). Alongside this goal is an economic target, of increasing the local energy-related savings and income to £1m per year by 2015. WREN also aims to boost its own income, becoming self-sufficient while still diverting 60% of its money into a community fund. A key part in achieving this are plans for large-scale community-owned solar and wind power, which are being worked on at present.

Coherent energy policies cannot be implemented without engaging the population, as energy flows are simply an expression of what people do.

Stephen Frankel, Chair, WREN

WREN is working actively with Cornwall Council to replicate the work across Cornwall, attending the Cornwall Renewable Energy Show and speaking at conferences. The council’s Smart Cornwall programme has attracted international businesses to trial smart grid technology in the county, and Wadebridge will be a key site for this because it has a large group of volunteers willing to try out new energy technologies. The intention is to demonstrate a replicable model for the kind of decentralised energy economy that can support both local well-being and a rational response to climate change. The components are engaged communities, a focused interest in demand, local generation, and smart microgrids, including storage. These are expected to enable the wider benefits of renewable energy to be translated into local benefits, including economic resilience, stable energy costs, and greater local cohesion.

Replication across the rest of the UK is also possible. Approximately a fifth of the UK population live in rural communities of 10,000 or fewer which, like Wadebridge, often have good access to renewable energy resources. WREN has shown how it is possible to attract the interest of a significant proportion of the population of a town of this size. Replicated throughout the UK, this could make a significant impact in reducing the UK’s CO2 emissions and improving energy security, in addition to creating jobs and reducing household and business spending on energy.