Power to the people

Ahead of this year’s Stephen Lloyd Awards, we thought we’d talk to one of the 2015 winners to see how they’re getting on. 

Energy Local was one of three winners from last year’s Stephen Lloyd Awards. According to the website, the awards ‘support early stage projects that have real potential to achieve practical, sustainable social change’. 

Mary Gillie of Energy Local started out as a physicist, “working on the wires that get electricity from A to B”, she says. She’s currently the only full time paid employee of Energy Local, with colleagues fitting the work around other commitments. What was the reason for starting the initiative? Gillie answers with another question: “How can a community keep more of a margin available from their local renewable energy and use it more directly? That’s a problem that’s been bugging me for ten years,” she explains.

The idea behind Energy Local is to enable local communities to work together, pool the energy they produce and manage collective use of that energy. Since December last year the organisation has had a first trial run involving 46 households, one sports pavilion and one village hall. The pilot will run for a year.

Participants were sourced in lots of different ways: leaflet drops, local radio and via social housing landlords. 16 of the buildings in the trial have solar panels and it’s important to note that, given that the trial started in the gloomy days of November, not all of the energy could be generated by renewables. Villagers have been given new dummy tariffs depending when they use power.

People with solar panels selling their power to the national grid would get around 4.7p/kWh (per kilowatt hour) at present. If their neighbours use it, they’ll get 6.5p/kWh. Standard suppliers charge 12-14p/kWh. Participants in the trial have also been told that their power will be more expensive at breakfast time and in the evenings. If they change their use to quieter periods or when the sun is shining, their power will be cheaper.

If the trial proves successful smart meters could be introduced – they will let participants know what they are being charged when they are using energy so that they can decide what they want to pay and change their use accordingly.

"I really didn't know much about Stephen Lloyd... talk about an unsung hero"

Another aim of the project is that community energy and money could be kept in the community. If solar panels are on the roof of a school, that energy is sold to power suppliers at weekends for 4.7p p/kWh but then will be sold back to someone who could be living next door for more than twice the price. 

Gillie says that winning the Stephen Lloyd award gave them the breathing space to find further funding. Energy Local had initially won some support from UnLtd and then Innovate, for which Gillie and her colleagues had to find matched funding. 

Winning the Stephen Lloyd award was worth £22,000 but the associated business advice was also crucial: “Almost as important was the support we got from BWB (Bates Wells Braithwaite law firm) in putting a good business plan together and the advice about who to approach for further funding. The pro bono work from them was really flexible, tailored to what we needed.”

Gillie says that she was pretty ignorant about the man behind the awards before the idea to apply came up: “I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t really know much about Stephen Lloyd but when I read up on him I realised how many he’d things he’d done that I’d benefitted from. He was the director of a community energy organisation of a village near where I live, he set up the community interest company legal status. Talk about an unsung hero.”

As well as the money and the business support, Gillie says there’s been one other really important benefit: “It’s given us a psychological boost. You really want to make it work for yourself but then there’s this group of people believing in you… you might crash and burn but you feel that they’re really supporting you.”

The Stephen Lloyd Awards are open for entry until March 25th. Click here for more details.


Photo credit: G&R