WREN directors Stephen Frankel and Kevin Smith attended the Cornwall Energy Island conference at the Eden Project in March 2015. The one and a half day event attracted people from around Cornwall and beyond to discuss the question: “What would it take to make Cornwall self-sufficient in energy?”
The event was hosted by the Eden Project and BuroHappold engineering and included speakers from Cornwall Council, community energy groups, technology developers, the University of Exeter and the National Grid and power distribution companies.
The first day was spent setting the ambition and exploring the constraints, problems and other issues that currently prevent us getting there. The structure of the UK energy market operates to favour the centralised production of electricity and the big six supply companies and against community energy. The design of the grid and distribution system similarly is based on centralised production flowing along progressively “thinner” wires to the consumers – you and me in our homes. The grid finds it hard to cope with mid-sized production taking place at the ends of the thin wires and there is no sensible mechanism to pay for grid reinforcement (laying thicker wires, essentially) when a community energy company – such as WREN – wants to build a significant solar array or wind farm.
Grid connection quotes can double the cost of an installation, making it totally unviable.
The second day moved onto discussing potential solutions.For this, we were divided into groups, which each came up with ideas in specific areas. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the consolidated output of all the groups, since there wasn’t time during the event.
However, there are solutions out there. New technologies can help spread both the demand and the supply. Cornwall faces the issue that its energy generation is renewable and mostly variable with the wind and the sun. In summer, we produce more solar electricity than we can use in Cornwall, and so have to export it up country via the grid – hence the importance of thick wires. In winter, we produce less than we use overall.
So can we spread demand so that people and businesses use more at the time it is produced? For example, if you have solar PV on your roof, you tend to switch the dishwasher and washing machine on when the sun is shining to use the free electricity. Can we scale that up? There are ways.
On the other side, can we spread supply to when it is needed? Sounds harder – it’s the well-discussed problem of storage. But there are ways for that too. WREN has previously featured offers from a Cornish company called Wattstor offering storage methods based on well-established methods – batteries. But other methods exist, such as using electricity to pump water uphill and letting the water generate power later by running downhill again through hydro-power turbines (again, a well-established technology). Or splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and storing the hydrogen to burn later. The issue is how to use the hydrogen, since it needs an infrastructure that isn’t there yet, to mix it with natural gas, or use for car fuel, or store during the summer to burn in winter at hydrogen-fuelled electricity generating plants.
WREN is interested in all these things and the way they can be applied locally. The conference was about the Cornwall Energy Island. WREN’s ambition is to produce all the energy that Wadebridge needs in Wadebridge by 2020 – our own island within an island. It’s going to need all of the above.
Addendum: just to clarify - this is not about taking Wadebridge off the grid. WREN wants local, community-owned assets to generate enough electricity for Wadebridge's needs, using smart grid technology to overcome current grid connection issues. But going off-grid? I think not. Sorry if the "energy island" metaphor gave that impression.
The writer, Kevin Smith, is the communications director of WREN, but the views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and should not be interpreted as the views of WREN.