“I didn’t know the National Trust did that”, this is the usual response when I tell people about the renewable energy projects currently underway across the National Trust. Most people envisage scones, stately homes and Keira Knightley, not hydros, solar pvs and biomass. It may come as a surprise then to learn there is a lot more of the latter going on behind the scenes than first meets the eye, and making the public aware of these projects is partly down to the media and external affairs team.
I must admit, before my internship I didn’t really know the scale of it either. I knew of the Trust’s pledge to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2020 and heard of a few projects around the UK, but being someone who is more comfortable talking about farmers markets than biomass, was more aware of the sustainable food projects than energy ones.
This all changed on a trip to Snowdonia a couple of weeks ago; not only did I see how many renewable energy projects the Trust is already supporting or managing, but I got the hydro bug, the prospect of installing or reinstalling hydros in order to power a community, cut energy consumption, increase capital and create local green jobs made perfect sense.
The hundreds of square miles of mountainous, wet land makes hydroelectricity the most feasible renewable energy option for the region. Needless to say, we drove past dozens of potential hydro sites as Keith Jones (official ‘hydro safari’ tour guide and the Trust’s environmental advisor for Wales) explained how farmers and locals were beginning to approach him with the possibility of turning the waterfall in their back yard into a community energy scheme.
The concept of community energy is simple; communities club together for direct ownership of (for example) a wind turbine, the electricity generated from the turbine is then sold back to the national grid, cuts energy bills and usually leaves enough surplus revenue to be reinvested back into the community. The reality however is not as straight forward as knowledge, funding and red tape demands a great deal of time and patience from group members.
Despite these complications, with fuel poverty becoming an increasingly common issue in rural areas, the numbers of these community energy projects are on the up. With the National Trust owning many villages and thousands of hectares of land, exploring how to encourage these projects on our land would not only help tackle fuel poverty for the people living in our villages but would radically reduce the Trust’s carbon emissions. This collaborative work is being pioneered by the National Trust in Wales, and Keith took us to the village of Abergwyngregyn where he and a local group are working together to install a community hydro.
Set up a number of years ago, ARP (Abergwyngregyn Regenration Project) have already raised almost half a million pounds to renovate an old mill in the village. Now up and running, we sat and met with the chairman of ARP on the second floor of the recently renovated building, which is used for meetings, local clubs (including an extremely popular gardening club) and rented out for parties. The floor above houses snooker tables for the Young Boys Club charity and below is a buzzing community café. The village has the added benefit of being nestled at the bottom of the Anafon valley, a popular walking destination attracting 50,000 visitors a year. A pay metre set up in the village car-park offers another welcome income stream for the community and is testament to ARP’s savvy commercialism.
It is the Trust owned, perfect hydro-condition land in the valley above the village which has resulted in the National Trust and ARP joining forces. Learning about ARP’s established projects and noticeable expertise, Keith approached the group about the possibility of installing a community hydro. With the group already interested in renewable energy it seemed like a perfect match, the project is now well under way with work due to begin next year.
This collaborative project between the Trust and a community is extremely exciting and could pave the way for similar joined up work across the rest of the Trust and UK. Before the trip to Wales I understood the role community energy projects could play in cutting carbon emissions within Trust land but could not see what role the Trust played in relation to the communities; given the time demands and patience required from a group to set-up a project, surely the motivation must begin from the bottom-up? Inspiration needs to grow organically from a community, not be planted into a group from the top-down.
Although I do still believe a project needs to be community led in order to stand the test of time, talking to ARP and other groups during the trip to Wales made me realise the even greater capacity for a project that is both bottom-up and top-down. The Abergwyngregyn hydro is pioneering because it has the balance just right; the Trust has the land and expertise (in the form of Keith Jones), but there is already an appetite in the community to drive the project forward. This winning combination, if scaled up, could be hugely beneficial for community energy groups and the wider environmental crisis, hopefully changing peoples’ perceptions of the Trust from scones to solar too
If you would like to know more of what our Environmental Advisers are up to then take a look at the blog NT Going Green.
Want the chance to write this blog and be a part of the Media & External Affairs team? Applications for the March internships are now open, to download a form please click here.