Pioneering community renewables in Oxford

Luke Marion, installer Chris Jardine and Barbara Hammond connect the 140kW scheme's last panel, completing Oxford's biggest solar installation.
Luke Marion, installer Chris Jardine and Barbara Hammond connect the 140kW scheme's last panel, completing Oxford's biggest solar installation.
A partnership between an Oxford-based social enterprise and the local Council provides a blueprint for financing community energy projects, writes Wendy Twist. And with £2.3 million in the bank, things are really starting to move ...
Our vision is to convert the rivers and rooftops of Oxfordshire into the power stations of the future.

"Now we're green on our buses, green in our depot, and green on the roof too!" says Luke Marion, finance director of Oxford Bus Company.

"Our headquarters at Cowley House are now one of the most eco-friendly commercial buildings in the city."

His enthusiasm for things green is inspired by the 140kW solar PV installation on the company's offices - currently the largest solar PV installation in Oxford.

The scheme also pioneered a new approach to financing solar PV and other renewable energy projects in Oxford - and one that could soon be spreading across the country.

The model, developed by Low Carbon Hub, an Oxford-based social enterprise, provides long-term investment for renewable energy schemes will come via community share offers.

This gives a good deal to Oxford Bus Company, which benefits from free daytime electricity off the panels to run its offices and charge up the batteries that power its electric buses - and of course it gets to reduce its own CO2 footprint.

Everyone benefits

But it also delivers investors a good economic return - from the sale of electricity, and the incentives paid to renewables generators out of a levy on consumers' bills. "With the support of the Hub, our solar panels have proved a big success," says Luke, "not just for us but for the community too."

Oxford Bus Company is the Low Carbon Hub's first commercial partner, and proud of it. But it's not Low Carbon Hub's first success story. That accolade goes to the Osney Lock Hydro project in West Oxford.

When shares in the project were floated in April 2013, the popularity was such that the scheme received more than double the target investment. More recently Oxford North Community Renewables raised £92,000 in three weeks to install 63.5kW of solar PV on two local schools.

"We're pleased to be one of the Low Carbon Hub's first solar schools", says Joan Mortars, headteacher at Wheatley Church of England Primary Academy. "The scheme means we will generate clean, green electricity and save money to reinvest in our children."

Community support is strong

"These projects are typical of the level of support community energy schemes receive from local people", says Barbara Hammond, CEO of the Low Carbon Hub.

"Shares in the projects are open to anyone around the country, but it is a measure of how much local communities are behind the schemes that over 40% of the total investment in the Osney Lock scheme came from within one mile of the project."

And now Low Carbon Hub is about to move up a gear, following the grant of a £2.3 million loan facility by Oxford City Council, which will allow them to scale-up their work developing renewable energy projects across Oxfordshire.

Our vision is to convert the rivers and rooftops of Oxfordshire into the power stations of the future.

The City Council loan will provide initial construction funding for the projects, but then shares in schemes will be sold on to community investors - freeing up the Council's money.

25 new projects can now go ahead

The loan will enable the Hub to build up to 25 renewable energy projects, including installing solar PV on local businesses and 20 primary and secondary schools across the County. This work is scheduled to take place over the next 12 months, with many of the school solar projects being installed over the upcoming summer holidays.

The way it works is that Low Carbon Hub receives income from its projects via the Feed-in-Tariff - which, in the case of the up-coming projects, will be used to make payments on the City Council loan.

The loan will ultimately be paid off when the shares in the schemes are sold and the Council has plans to then 'recycle' the loan to support the next phase of renewable projects. Individuals will be able to invest in the schemes from September.

The Low Carbon Hub will also receive money through the sale of electricity, which it will use to support further community schemes, including those which help communities to work together to reduce their carbon footprint.

Additionally the model is being endorsed by local community groups. Local group Hook Norton Low Carbon plan to loan the Low Carbon Hub £80,000, which will be used to support solar schools projects.

This all goes to show that the momentum is with local partnerships rather central government when it comes to getting renewable schemes up and running.

The seed of an idea

The story of the Low Carbon Hub begins with the unprecedented floods of 2007 that caused mayhem all over Oxfordshire. Barbara Hammond and others were prompted to come together to form a local community group, Low Carbon West Oxford and subsequently West Oxford Community Renewables.

Their aim was to develop, build and own renewable schemes based on the natural resources of the area. They were very successful and installed 220kWp of solar PV on local roofs, including 100kWp on a local school and a 6kWp wind turbine.

Barbara was determined that all the knowledge and expertise built up in West Oxford, and other low carbon communities in Oxfordshire, didn't go to waste.

So she marshalled the support of her local group, Oxford City Council and Oxfordshire County Council and the idea for a Low Carbon Hub for Oxfordshire was born.

Experience and expertise

As a team of experts who are working together to get community energy off the ground in Oxfordshire, its objective is to serve as a centre of expertise to advise community groups who wanted to replicate the work of communities like West Oxford. The Low Carbon Hub was finally launched in December 2011.

Because Hub team members have worked on community energy schemes within their local community groups, they have first hand experience of getting projects off the ground and understand the challenges involved.

The Hub now has 20 community partners, each with a shareholding and an elected community director on the board. This ensures that the operation is truly transparent and guided by the communities it was set up to serve.

Oxford City Council also benefits financially - it will receive a 5% return on its loan, rather better than it can earn by keeping funds on deposit. But profit is not its main driver. The City Council has long been a supporter of the Hub and provided seed funding to get the social enterprise up and running in 2011.

It's this backing that gave Barbara Hammond the confidence to approach the Council with the idea of the loan, says Barbara. "Both the City Council and the County Council are showing a fantastic commitment to creating a low carbon future for Oxfordshire and have already made some impressive strides."

Working for a £20 million investment

In fact Oxford City Council, along with Oxfordshire County Council, have formed a formal partnership with the Low Carbon Hub.

The partnership, called OxFutures, is co-funded by the Intelligent Energy Europe programme of the European Union and has big aspirations for greening Oxford and Oxfordshire.

"Our shared ambition is that the Oxfutures partnership will bring investment of £20 million into local energy projects by the end of 2015, leading to the installation of 7.6MW of renewable energy capacity", says Barbara.

"It's fantastic to have our model of community-owned renewables endorsed by local government. Our vision is to convert the rivers and rooftops of Oxfordshire into the power stations of the future and for the energy created by these schemes to be in the hands of local communities."

"We hope that other counties across the UK will be inspired by this model and can use it as a roadmap for their own development of renewables."



Low Carbon Hub is at

Wendy Twist trained as a marine biologist, then worked for Earthlife, WWF and Living Earth before joining Oxfam to manage corporate sponsorship. At the Prince of Wales Business Leaders' Forum she directed an international sustainable tourism programme launched by HRH The Prince of Wales before joining Forum for the Future to help develop the their Business Network and Green Futures Partnership scheme. Wendy is a Founder member of Low Carbon Oxford North and a Director of the Low Carbon Hub in charge of investment.