I met Chris Blake of Community Energy Wales and The Green Valleys project at an event in Cardiff recently. With his expertise in developing community renewables, I asked him if he would be able to write a guest slot for the column in Broad Sheep magazine. Here’s the piece he sent, we loved it … enjoy …
It appeared in my inbox like any other email, the sender’s name unfamiliar.
“Spam” I muttered, barely pausing for thought. Then I saw the sent date: 1st April 2038.
Even now I don’t know where it came from or how it got here. I am almost certain that it was a harmless prank. We all know that messages can’t get lost in the tangled mess of the Internet and then appear 25 years earlier. But I sometime daydream that it is what it claims to be – a transcript of an interview, given in 2038, and celebrating 25 years of a community energy project in rural Wales. I don’t know who these people are, but perhaps it might mean something to you. I hope so.
INTERVIEWER: Huw, we are here to mark the anniversary of the community energy company that you and a small group of other residents started 25 years ago. Can you remember how it all began?
HUW: In the pub on a wet and windy night. A group of us got talking about energy bills and fuel costs. I remember there was a lot of moaning my neighbours electricity bill had been over £1,500 for the year and we were shocked, outraged looking for someone to blame. Of course back then electricity was almost free– maybe 15p / kWh, I can’t remember the details – but cheap enough to use it without thinking. But the rise in prices was starting to be noticed, we could see that something would have to change. Now someone, Jo maybe, had read an article about generating electricity from wind and water and seeing that we had hills, rain and wind it seemed like it might be an idea to see if we could generate our own electricity – in fact just like my grandfather had done on the farm in the 1950s, before the grid got the valley. It seemed possible. Anyway, after a few more drinks the idea took hold.
INTERVIEWER: What was your first project?
HUW: The 30kW hydro turbine that you can on Howell’s farm. Back then you could get a guaranteed price for every kwH you generated – maybe 25p or so – doesn’t seem much now but it was enough for us to raise the finance – some from round the village plus some loans, and a small grant I remember. It took a while to get it approved but after that it was built in 2 months and has been operating ever since.
INTERVIEWER: I have heard that first scheme described as the catalyst for everything else that has happened in the village over the last quarter century. Do you know how much income it has generated since it started?
HUW: We have lost some of the records from the early 2020’s (the floods in 2024) but for the anniversary we have been doing some calculations and we think it must be well over £2 million. Of course we never thought it would be so high but the Feed-in Tariff went up by inflation every year and the export price (what we could sell the electricity to the grid for) was rising every year in line with the global energy market – that is what made us the money. Well in the last few years, as we all know, that has been up to 35% a year. It wasn’t all profit – we had to pay for the scheme – about £180,000, I found the final bill last week, and we had to repay loans, and of course rent to Howell, and some maintenance and repairs – the replacement electrics of course after the flood.
INTERVIEWER: But you haven’t been just handing the cash out to the community – you have been investing.
HUW: That’s right…. but I will say in the early days there were a lot of people asking for cash to help them pay their energy bills. But we got together as a community and decided that we should invest in more energy generation and we got that just about right,
yeah, think so
So the second hydro was online in 2019. The income from the first scheme allowed us to pay for all the planning and feasibility work – we still used loan finance to build it. And by then, with energy prices soaring we had the confidence to build the wind turbine on the ridge. That has been running for almost 12 years now. I think even the sceptics have have accepted it now.
INTERVIEWER: Are you saying that everyone loves the turbine?
HUW: Not all of them, maybe one day. But its hard not to love what it has done for the community. Even before the recent energy crisis, maybe 5 years ago, we were getting half a million a year in income. But with the incredible rise in fuel costs now we are only selling part of the energy to the grid – we are using most of it locally. Over the hill there are farms abandoned and the old tractors haven’t been used for a decade – first the spiralling cost and then the rationing. But in this valley there isn’t a farm that doesn’t have an electric utility vehicle. And of course we are powering the business centre – someone told me last week there are more small manufacturing businesses connected to our community grid than the rest of the county – I don’t know if that is true but it could well be. Now it is the cheap electric that brings them in, but using the hydro profits to provide business loans and mentor support was one of the smarter things we did.
INTERVIEWER: Any regrets over 25 years?
HUW: I only wish we had got more communities involved from the start – it breaks my heart to drive through the abandoned villages when I take the electric car drive back from town.
Link to Chris at The Green Valleys firstname.lastname@example.org
First printed in Broad Sheep www.broadsheep.com April issue 2013