In the waste and resources sector, the thinking remains essentially focused on problem solving, with a token acknowledgement of the need for emphasising the circularity of the process towards reuse, recycling and renewal. This message is logical enough in terms of the process strictures, but ignores the need to deliver whole lifecycle approaches as a reality that local populations can see as a benefit to their pockets and their consciences.
Fortunately the flow of pricing policy in relation to domestic energy could be about to change all that and supplement top-down waste strategy with some bottom-up delivery as well. In southern Leicestershire, in my own village, the juxtaposition of a few eco- enthusiasts is seeking to exploit this opportunity to our mutual financial benefit.
Despite ministerial promises that “the lights will stay on during my watch”, and news that the first new nuclear capacity will be on line by 2018, the less sanguine among us know that demand for electricity for heating and cooling is highly likely to run ahead of supply in the forthcoming decade. While large corporations are gradually seeing the writing on the wall in terms of interruptible supply, carbon allowances and hikes in real prices, communities tend to be much further behind the curve.
Not in North Kilworth, where the old railway station yard closed by Beeching in the 1960s now hosts a seed cleaning company, a fabrication workshop, a liquid gas delivery depot, a canal barge fabrication operation and a plant hire and repair firm.
A vacant lot in the yard could host an anaerobic digester, we thought, supplying gas heat and electricity to all of them.
Additionally, a local two-acre plot housing a flourishing rose-growing business with associated glasshouses had also become available, offering the possibility of a starter homes project, with a carbon dioxide feed to refurbished growing sheds, that could supply a fresh produce operation that sells home- grown food and flowers to the village, as well as passing trade on the main road.
Local farmers face restrictions on untreated slurry disposal to land, which sits on the boundary of glacial clays and gravels and therefore hosts a line of springs across the landscape. Based on the relevant input calculations, we are likely to need a 15,000-tonne a year plant fed with 5,000 tonnes of slurry and 10,000 tonnes of domestic food waste. That would yield around 450kW to 3.8MWh of power to wipe out the current estimated village fossil carbon footprint from 280 dwellings. But how were we to find the £500,000 for the anaerobic digestion (AD) plant and a further £500,000 for the land?
By a process of reverse logic, we hit upon the idea of forming a community interest company (CIC) tasked with initially negotiating a one-stop deal with a photovoltaic provider for householders. Following a village hall meeting, 20 providers expressed an interest and we are now in the midst of a ‘beauty parade’ to see which of five possible suppliers can deliver the best deal - not just on price but also in terms of planning, warranties, repairs and product support.
By taking a commission on the overall contract value, the CIC hopes to establish a ‘community chest’ fighting fund to engage professional fundraisers. Their task would be to secure grant aid to fit community buildings -the school, church, bowls club, sports club and village hall - in exchange for free power. The value of exports to the grid could then accrue to the CIC and act as funding leverage for the AD and food projects. The latter will require food inputs and the collection contract is now let until 2014, so there is time to draw breath.
But the path is tortuous because each household has different attributes in terms of solar efficiency and captive energy use profiles, so the savings are unique to each owner. A further challenge is that only a minority of villagers can afford the £10,000 or so for the panels so, as a further option, we are exploring the feasibility of leasing deals and rental payments on roof space.
From an individual householder perspective, such an approach need not be unattractive, given that this is a rapidly expanding sector where the lessons of double-glazing salesmen are about to be repeated.
The association with the CIC is designed to ensure that legal risks in relation to later sale of property, legal agreements and warranties do not become a minefield for the unwary. Involving Harborough District Council could also prove beneficial because it faces the challenges of meeting tighter carbon reduction targets and become empowered to sell electricity in its own right. The council could become an important ally in securing grants and the food waste feedstock supply if the AD project becomes reality.
To feed the plant, the yield from Lutterworth and half a dozen local villages will be needed. A further strand lies in the erection of low-cost housing on extant community land or agricultural land, adjacent to the village.
Targeted for sole use of the children of village families or dependents otherwise forced to move out due to unaffordable price levels, such buildings could be folded into the not-for-profit CIC. It then gets 50% capital grant-built properties, providing an income stream from rents which pay a mortgage and supplement community chest funding streams.
Such a path - from where we are now to where we might end up - is undeniably tortuous and beset with massive community consultation challenges. But this is all the art of the possible. North Kilworth currently needs around £60,000 annually from raffles, dances, teas, social activities and so on to maintain the fabric of the village, and in that it probably differs little from many others around the country. Establishing a community trust fund is designed to ease that burden and allow social events to become just that.
While the idea of a community anaerobic digester got us on to this trail, it remains an ultimate goal. Whether we make it to the end is anybody’s guess!
Peter Jones is director at Ecolateral, a former director at Biffa and a waste sector commentator