WREN – A Community Energy Town In The Making

Residents of the Cornish town of Wadebridge are pioneering a community initiative that could become a model for the county and beyond.
Published: Thu 30 Oct 2014

The north Cornwall town of Wadebridge on the southwestern tip of England, with its approximately 6,500 population, is leading the way towards a potential energy future with an innovative community initiative.

Under the banner “Our energy, our future” a group of residents have established the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN), with the aim to “transform energy from an individual cost to a collective asset.” Dismayed by the fact that the (currently) approximately £13 million paid for energy bills annually in Wadebridge disappears out of the town (as it does for most), the strategy is to aim to retain some of these resources by generating energy locally as a community asset.

Community energy

One of as many as 5,000 community initiatives across the UK, WREN was established in 2011 as a not for profit cooperative owned by its members – 1,046 currently – with a princely £1 membership fee. [Engerati-Can the 'Power' of Community Reshape Britain's Energy Market?]

Run mostly by volunteers – the operations manager is the only salaried employee – decisions are made by the voting members collectively.

Wadebridge uses some 50,000 MWh/year of electricity. WREN’s targets are to generate 30% of Wadebridge’s electricity from local renewable resources and a demand reduction of 5% by 2015 – targets it is confident in meeting, along with that of 100% local renewable energy generation by 2020.

“WREN recognized early on that renewable energy was a good thing to do in itself but that it was necessary to engage the community initially rather than embark on a crusade to build wind turbines,” explains communications director Kevin Smith in an interview.

Focus on energy efficiency

This led to an initial focus on energy efficiency in homes and businesses as the organization got to grips with the sector and the underlying regulatory aspects. It proved so successful that in one government energy efficiency scheme, some 15% of all installations nationally were in Wadebridge.

It also led to the establishment of relationships with home energy product suppliers, as well as the establishment of a local Energy Shop, where residents can go for advice on energy matters and purchase from the growing range of local and low energy products.

The outcome of these activities include the installation to date of over 1MW of renewable heat and almost 1MW of solar PV, to the benefit of those residents with the installations and the companies that have done them.

WREN has also established a Community Fund to support local energy projects, with a target of over £150,000 per year and £10,000 allocated to date. To support the Fund, a local “currency” with various denominations, appropriately named the Wren (Wr), has been established which can be redeemed in local shops and businesses, with each redemption resulting in a contribution to the Fund. In the longer term much of the income for the Fund is expected to come from the local renewable generation.

In all WREN estimates its initiatives to date have saved almost £1 million in electricity costs and reduced annual carbon emissions by 1,952 tonnes.

Wadebridge Energy Company

In addition to its ongoing activities, WREN has big plans for the future. The next stage, Smith outlines, is to build and start generating renewable energy capacity, through a company currently being set up named the Wadebridge Energy Company.

“We intend to issue shares to locals so that it will be a not-for-profit cooperative with local ownership,” says Smith.

Initially the plan is to install PV on rooftops with the government feed-in tariff serving as income to the company. An agreement is also in place with South West Water to build a 100kW PV installation to power its local water and sewage plants.

Beyond that the next stage will be to look at larger MW-scale generation. However, this will bring different challenges, such as the connection to the national grid, and will involve a shift to smarter technology.

Smart Innovation Hub

WREN is also part of an initiative, along with the Academy of Innovation and Research (AIR) and Academy of Music & Theatre Arts at Falmouth University to establish a Smart Innovation Hub (SIH), as a key component of Cornwall’s proposed European Centre for Smart Energy Research, Testing and Standards. The SIH is envisaged as a business acceleration facility and demonstrator of smart technology integration with the digital delivery of cultural content.

Last but not least WREN has been named as a pilot site for the Smart Cornwall programme, which seeks to establish a smart grid in the county, and is designated as the site for the first microgrid within the programme. [Engerati-Smart Cornwall – Towards A Local Smart Energy Ecosystem]

Smith says that a key goal of WREN is for its activities to be replicable elsewhere. “Wadebridge is a small market town and many people in the UK live in similar areas and so our activities should be replicable and scalable.”

He attributes its success to the wide range of skills that it has attracted. “We have been good at getting the right sort of people. For example the financial director is head of a local accountancy firm, the legal adviser is a qualified lawyer, we have a health adviser, people connected with the education community, and so on – the skills that cover what is needed for this sort of initiative.”