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Putting consumers and communities at heart of green recovery

By Rob Gibson

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The Morvern Community Development Company is developing a hydro power scheme on the Barr River near Loch Teacuis, Morvern in Lochaber.
The Morvern Community Development Company is developing a hydro power scheme on the Barr River near Loch Teacuis, Morvern in Lochaber.

The Scottish Government has been limbering up to build sustainable local economies post-Covid-19. These include support for local clean energy developments on various models.

On the government’s behalf, the Scottish Land Commission has been tasked to scope out regional land use partnerships. Online seminars are informing proposals that are due to be lodged with ministers in August. At the same time, the non-governmental organisation and wilderness charity, the John Muir Trust (JMT), has begun to develop a vision for the north-west Highlands.

Each of these initiatives could provide a framework to integrate environmental, economic and social stability and development post-pandemic.

Each prong of these projects taps into what the JMT-funded research describes as: aligning resources and investment, recognising cultural, natural and community assets, promoting sustainable local economies, reversing population trends and strengthening community leadership. The idea of seeing the north-west Highlands as one fragile regional unit from Loch Broom to Bettyhill could meet integrated land use criteria while the Scottish Government’s green recovery proposals have a more local focus as part of this resilience exercise.

In mid-June, Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse introduced a new fund for energy investment in local renewables and low-carbon heat. This included additional funding of £5.5 million to be made available for renewables projects to contribute towards a green recovery following the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Communities can bid for a share of £4.5 million through the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES), which funds local renewable projects. A further £1 million is to be channelled through the Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP) – a scheme which can provide support for innovative energy projects such as heat networks and integrated energy systems.

Mr Wheelhouse gave a strong signal that renewables will play an increasing role in helping us achieve a green recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic. As planning continues for a safe restart to the economy, working together is all the more important to bring forward new renewable energy projects right across Scotland.

This investment will help to push forward projects that will begin to rebuild the economy, support local communities to build their strength and resilience, and help achieve our net-zero ambitions.

A good example of the painstaking work required to bring about new local energy developments is the Morvern Community Development Company announcement on June 22 that it has worked with Triodos Bank UK and the Scottish Investment Bank to secure a new finance arrangement to support the development of a high-head (142m) hydro power scheme on the Barr River near Loch Teacuis, Morvern in Lochaber.

Once installed, the scheme is expected to have a 1.6MW capacity and to generate approximately 4.3MWh each year – enough to power more than 1000 homes. It will take approximately 14 months to build and is expected to operate for at least 50 years.

The community has been exploring the potential for a shared-ownership hydro power scheme since 2013. Now this new finance will help with the construction and operation of the hydro power scheme by MorVolts Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Morvern Community Development Company, a registered charity that aims to benefit the community of Morvern.

Such shared ownership may be the way ahead for some, exploring integrated electricity production and storage may be another. This approach is in the early stages of scoping around Loch Broom. It could benefit from the LCITP fund. I will report on progress in due course.

Paul Wheelhouse, in his announcement, said that priority for funding through CARES will be given to community-led development and capital stage projects, off-grid communities seeking capital investment to help maintain the security of their energy supply and rural businesses seeking development support to explore their renewable options. Further information is available on the Local Energy Scotland website.

The LCITP fund is accepting applications from innovative energy systems and low-carbon heat projects in the development stage. Eligible projects will be able to apply for up to £50,000 to progress projects towards capital readiness.

Such innovative Scottish thinking is set against a far-from-clear energy policy lead from the UK. We well know that the highest surcharges in the UK are placed on wind, wave, tidal and other clean sources here that feed the national grid. Furthermore, consumers in the north pay far more per unit consumed in the Highlands as a whole than every area further south, with south-east England receiving the lowest prices charged.

The Scottish Government also recognises that fuel poverty is partly caused by that imposed penalty on communities here. Many Highland homes outside Inverness suffer between 61 per cent and 86 per cent fuel poverty. Therefore, as part of this local clean energy announcement the establishment of an independent Energy Consumers Commission for Scotland was one of the recommendations of last year’s Energy Consumers Action Plan. The new body is designed to give Scottish consumers a stronger voice in energy policy.

Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse announced the investment I have outlined as he addressed the virtual All Energy conference. He also confirmed that Lewis Shand Smith, former chief ombudsman in energy, telecoms and property, has been appointed chair of the newly formed Energy Consumers Commission. Thus, consumers and local communities form an integral part of the green recovery to rebuild a renewable power into a far more sustainable future.

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