A City With A Vision: Renewable energy in Bristol

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Bristol is one of the really happening cities in the UK with regard to renewable energy, a process that has been gathering momentum for several years now. One of the main reasons for this is simply that Bristol is attractive to businesses of all sorts, with good road and rail communications with both the South West of England and with London. Furthermore, the population of Bristol has always been fairly green-thinking to a degree, reflected in the wide range of non-governmental organisations and businesses that have located here. For example, within a short walk of the council offices in Cathedral Green are the offices of Triodos Bank, the Environment Agency and the cycling charity Sustrans. There are small and medium-sized renewable energy businesses all across the city, including a vibrant solar energy installer network.

In 2014 Bristol City Council embarked on a major solar PV programme to foster the installation of solar PV and solar thermal panels throughout the city.

“Bristol is making really good progress at the moment towards becoming the leading city in the UK with regard to renewables” says Mareike Schmidt, Energy Service Manager for Bristol City Council’s energy programme. “Our focus at the moment is very much on solar PV and for a very good reason. We’ve been awarded £2.5 million of European Local Energy Assistance (ELENA) funding by the European Investment Bank for the delivery of a large scale energy investment programme and one of the conditions of that funding is installing solar PV. Furthermore, the Feed-in Tariff is quite favourable at the moment and so it makes sense to invest in solar for that reason also – however, we are very interested in other technologies too. We have two wind turbines at present and we’re also looking at installing other renewable energy technologies in the near future.”

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A box of solar panels ready to be hoisted on to the roof of the Bristol M Shed museum and exhibition centre for installation

The council’s solar PV programme was established in 2012 with a solar PV framework of £47 million being put in place. This allowed the Council to develop a pipeline of solar PV projects across its Corporate estate and to run mini tenders every 4-6 weeks to get new packages of works with approved contractors under way as quickly as possible.

It was preceded by the first solar mapping exercise in the UK in which consultants were brought in by the council to establish how much potential solar energy could be generated. The finding was a potential 700 MW of rooftop solar across the whole of the city, aided by one of the highest solar irradiation levels of any major city in the UK. A range of organisations also collaborated to establish the Bristol Solar City project, which aims to make Bristol energy independent, reducing costs to make energy more affordable and creating jobs along the way. As a result of this, the Bristol Area Solar Installer Co-op (BASIC) has been established, a local installer network, which is now sub-contracted by one of the major approved contractors under the Council’s solar PV Procurement Framework Contract. Furthermore, in 2012, Bristol elected into office a very green-minded Mayor, George Ferguson, who had already created a number of solar energy alliances before running for Mayor. Indeed, Mr Ferguson has long championed the use of solar himself, primarily by installing solar on commercial premises such as the Tobacco Factory, a multi-use building which he saved from demolition and which now incorporates a Thali café, work space for creative businesses, animation and performing arts schools and one of the most exciting theatre venues in the UK.

George Ferguson

Bristol Mayor George Ferguson

“That has never been done before, not even in Europe” said Kerry Burns of Bristol Solar City, speaking to Renewable Energy Magazine in 2013. “People who normally fight each other for jobs said, ‘right let’s take a step back, get together, see what can we do as a group.’ That is quite a novel development and we’re really fortunate that we have a legacy of that kind of stuff going on in Bristol.”

According to Mareike Schmidt, the council is planning to install more than 1500 kW of solar throughout the city by the end of the year, using council buildings and sites. One of the main projects at present is the installation of a 50 kW PV system on the roof of the M-Shed, a museum and exhibition venue located beside the harbour in the city centre, followed by installations on buildings such as Kingsdown Leisure Centre and the Central Library.

“We are also trying to develop a city-wide proposal” she adds, “as there are many large roofs that belong to a wide range of organisations that often don’t want to install the panels themselves. We are also working with other organisations, such as the NHS, who we have helped to install a 50 kW system on the roof of St Michael’s Hospital for example. The way this works is that we develop, finance and install the solar PV on their roofs whilst the organisations co-operating with us receive a reduced electricity rate. As a result of our growing reputation, we have had quite a lot of interest from public sector organisations such as the universities, the business community and major developers in the city. Additionally, we are working with community energy groups and we’ve just received £895,000 of grant funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to develop Bristol as a best practice city for community energy.”

This best practice approach entails the Council making its buildings available for community energy groups to install the panels. An initial trial was launched at the beginning of 2015 with a 100 kW solar energy package having been installed on selected council buildings such as the South Bristol Sports Centre and the Mills Youth Centre. The aim of the plan, besides making energy savings and reducing costs, was also to help motivate the local community and encourage Bristol citizens to engage with the council’s Solar City initiative and Green Capital Partnership. The second work package has just been awarded to Bristol Energy Co-operative, which will see up to 18 of the council’s community centre roofs, including Headley Park Community Centre and Withywood Community Centre, fitted with solar panels. Bristol Energy Co-operative will start installing the 500 kW of PV, following investment from members who will receive a return on their investment. A share of the income will be used for community projects. Panels fitted under this scheme will generate enough energy each year to power the equivalent of 100 homes. The community centres will also enjoy cheaper electricity supplied from the panels on their own roof. It is also planned to encourage businesses and developers in the city to come on board with this initiative in the longer term and to potentially make their buildings available.

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A solar panel array on the roof of the Bristol City Council office at Temple Street, Bristol (Mayor George Ferguson (centre) with Assistant Mayor for Neighbourhoods Daniella Radice (left) and designer Chris Bahn (right))

The Council’s Solar PV Programme also includes the installation of solar on fields, Mareike explains.

“At Lawrence Weston Road, we have already received planning and grid connection consents to connect an 8.4 MW solar farm on 32 acres of land in the triangle between the M5 and M49” Mareike says. “The solar farm is expected to generate enough energy each year to power the equivalent of 2,000 homes.”

At the heart of the green developments in Bristol is Bristol Green Capital Partnership (BGCP), which aims to turn Bristol into a low carbon city with a high quality of life for all its citizens. Having won European Green Capital status, it is currently involved in delivering the Bristol Green Capital 2015 programme. Its main driving force is the Energy Action Group in which BGCP works closely with the city’s Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE). The aim of the group is to accelerate Bristol’s progress to becoming a truly energy sustainable city. This is based in turn on four initiatives – reducing energy consumption, increasing renewable energy generation, generating savings on fuel bills and reducing fuel poverty and engaging and empowering people. The objective is to achieve measurable carbon reductions in the city, expanding green energy generation and generating savings on fuel bills. This largely involves the promotion of existing activities within the city, for example through a Directory of local organisations working to make Bristol more sustainable. This contains details of 239 organisations across a wide range of topics and sectors.

Another organisation actively involved in achieving these goals is the Energy Advice Project run by Talking Money (formerly Bristol Debt Advice Centre) in conjunction with MakeYourHomeEco. The aim here is to reduce fuel poverty in the city, largely through providing advice to people experiencing it. Telephone and support services provided by the project aim to help people deal with fuel debt as well as conducting energy audits, accessing grants for energy efficiency measures and budgeting for ongoing energy consumption. Bristol Green Capital are helping this process by funding a series of energy efficiency advice sessions with a free energy audit for those who complete the course.

The Council’s Warm Up Bristol initiative, which is encouraging local residents to install energy saving measures on their homes with high levels of grant funding from DECC and subsidies from EDF, also offers to install solar PV panels on people’s homes. High profile champions of the initiative, such as Jaya Chakrabarti, one of the European Green Capital Champions, are supporting the initiative. Jaya herself has just installed solar PV panels on her own home under the initiative.

Rooftop solar at Abbey Road, Bristol Crabchick Flickr

Rooftop solar panels on a house in Abbey Road, Bristol (Pic by Crabchick, Flickr)

Community groups such as Bristol Green Doors are also helping, in this case by running open homes events in which householders of properties where green energy technology has been installed invite people to come and visit and inspect the technology and talk about energy issues. Usually held once a year, the next event is on the 26th/27th September 2015 and the aim is to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. Bristol Green Doors are also partners with the Green Open Homes Network, an organisation that supports low carbon open homes events across the UK.

Cold Home Energy Efficiency Survey Experts (CHEESE) is a pilot project for a city-wide project that will use thermal imaging to assess domestic heat loss. The aim is to lower energy consumption, save money and reduce the carbon footprint of homes in Bristol. The pilot project is being conducted in Bristol’s Easton and Lawrence Weston districts and is funded by a grant from Bristol 2015 [say what this is]. It also receives finance from a number of neighbourhood partnerships in Bishopston, Cotham and Redland with a view to expanding the project to Redland. The thermal imaging is carried out via low-cost thermal cameras that can be attached to smartphones. The images are then uploaded to the heatview website which enables access to an online map where users can locate their house along with a corresponding thermal image. Comparisons can then be made with other properties nearby. The website also contains information on how to interpret the images and what steps can be taken to reduce heat loss.

Mareike Schmidt believes that all of this is really paying off, helping to spread the message and create a positive feeling about renewable energy and energy efficiency right across the city.

“We receive lots of encouraging comments, particularly in schools as well as leisure and community centres. Solar PV deployment is great because it inspires people to also start thinking about installing energy efficiency measures and what they can do to save energy and money on their bills” she says. “Whenever we install a system, people say it’s a really good idea, how can we roll this out more widely across the city? And can we not just get the major organisations in the city but also householders more involved in this? We’ve also got the Solar Tree in Millennium Square, a European Green Capital initiative, which is providing free mobile phone charging points and Wi-Fi to residents. As you can’t always see the solar PV arrays that we install, as they are high up on roofs with access often restricted, this fantastic initiative is helping to raise awareness about solar and to engage people in energy issues.”

It’s not just ordinary people taking notice, companies engaged in renewable energy development and distribution are too. For example, Good Energy recently became the first energy company to join a local currency, the Bristol Pound. The company held a launch event just outside the city’s Bristol Temple Meads railway station which was very popular and also helped to generate lots of positive publicity. Good Energy supplies 100 cent renewable energy to homes and businesses across the UK and invests in a range of renewable technologies including solar, wind and tidal and it’s also very keen on encouraging ordinary citizens to become involved with greening their energy consumption.

This is just a sample of what’s going on in Bristol. There’s lots more going on as well, such as the plan to make Bristol City a ‘smart city’ as well as work going on with local and community energy groups by organisations such as Bristol Energy Network, Regen SW and Low Carbon SW. The recent announcement of a plan to develop a tidal energy fence for the Bristol Channel has also helped to focus attention on the area and just recently, at Bristol Balloon Fiesta, Cameroon Balloons showcased a hybrid solar powered hot air balloon, the first certified solar powered aircraft in the world.

There’s a renewable energy revolution going on in the UK right now, and Bristol is right at the heart of it.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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