2 February 2008

We have power to challenge supply

By Liam Carroll

Electricity distribution networks are natural monopolies, according to the electricity regulator Ofgem. Hence the regional electricity distribution network for the whole of the eastern region is operated by one company. Woking Borough Council (WBC) challenged this conventional arrangement by setting up a competing private wire network and successfully demonstrated the economic and environmental benefits of a radically new approach to providing electricity and heating.

There is now a big debate going on as to whether the model can or should be replicated by other local authorities or private investors. The government remains cautious and has been studying the issues, through working groups and consultations, for several years now. They have promised to publish another report on the subject later this year.

Meanwhile, the engineer behind the Woking model, Allan Jones, who received an MBE for his efforts, has been employed by the Mayor of London to apply his radical approach to energy in our capital city. Once again Allan Jones is demonstrating that thinking outside the box can achieve radical gains in slashing energy bills and cutting CO2 emissions.

Before going into the detail of the model, it is worth going over some of the figures; in fifteen years Woking Borough Council saved 4.9million pounds from their own fuel bills, delivered low cost heating and electricity to domestic and commercial customers, and cut their CO2 emissions by a staggering 82%.

So what are the radical measures and can they be replicated in somewhere like Norwich? Well, as mentioned at the beginning, one of the key actions taken by WBC was to set up a private electric distribution wire and generate their own electricity. This enabled them to avoid all the costs that come with sending electricity round the conventional transmission and distribution system. Transmission and distribution costs make up over half of a conventional electricity bill.

This substantial saving meant that WBC could invest in large photo-voltaic arrays, which they set up on a number of local authority buildings, and recover their investment money in a relatively short space of time. Secondly, because they had their own private wire they were able to take advantage of other forms of local electricity generation, particularly from heating projects that generate electricity as a by-product (combined heat and power or CHP). By converting to these low-carbon generating technologies and fuel efficient heat and power systems the council made radical gains in slashing their CO2 emissions.

Further savings on fuel costs were made through comprehensively addressing the poor insulation of the housing stock and promoting the uptake of CHP and renewables across both the local authority and private estates.

One of the vehicles used for delivering these projects was the development of an energy services company under a joint public-private partnership. The non-profit company, now conventionally referred to as an ESCO (energy services company), was able to enter partnerships, manage finance and offer services that were beyond the legal parameters of local authority activity.

Whether a local authority in this region could replicate such a model remains an open question. There is though more than one way to approach the issue for anyone who might be interested. There is nothing to stop private investors developing schemes that essentially mimic the principles outlined above. City centre rooftops are ideal for the installation of large photovoltaic arrays, and the savings made from the use of private wires suggests that becoming a low-carbon energy provider could be both profitable and ethically satisfying. Another option might be to approach the existing network operator who might decide that such a scheme is worth accommodating within the existing wires.

Another option would be for a coalition of public and private individuals to get together and explore the potential of driving such a project through. This is being done in the Midlands where a group called Decentralise Birmingham has already undertaken a feasibility study that essentially confirmed the viability of the project.

For further interest there are a number of agencies now with growing expertise on the subject, from the government to Greenpeace, who are all willing to share their knowledge and expertise on the subject. First and foremost however is the London Climate Change Agency (LCCA) whose chief executive officer is, of course, Allan Jones MBE. The LCCA is creating a centre of climate change and energy engineering excellence to offer advice and support to both the private and public sectors. Secondly there is Woking Borough Council who are ready to pass on the benefits of their experience as a registered Beacon Case Study for Sustainable Energy.