The basics of community energy project planning
First, don't dive straight into the list of renewable energy technologies and pick the one you either like the sound of or has the highest grants! Making the wrong choice can be both disruptive and costly further down the line. Sit down and think through exactly what your aims are, and don't be afraid to invest some of your capital budget on good, professional advice.
- What is your community energy project trying to achieve?
- Do you have funding for your community energy project in place?
- What level of operational support do you expect to have?
- Do you know the likely demand pattern of your community energy project?
- What is the arrangement of the property or buildings?
- What type of system are you considering?
- Do you have any potential sources of energy?
- Are there any limitations to your community energy project?
- Some final general words of advice
- Reduce the running costs, or make them as low as possible.
- Get the building(s) up to a good standard but at the lowest possible cost.
- Minimise the environmental impact through the lowest possible CO2 emissions.
- Earn revenue from generating renewable electricity - or potentially heat.
- Invest for the long term.
- Attain a minimum pre-determined contribution from renewables.
- Make a clearly visible 'green statement' to your community or user group.
- Help create a community spirit or improve social cohesion.
Do you have funding for your community energy project in place?
Ultimately, most projects are determined by the level of available funding. However, it's worth identifying whether you'll only have access to capital once (so it might be wise to invest now to minimise future costs) or whether you have the chance to make incremental changes over a number of years through regular capital funding allocations. If you have quite limited access to capital upfront, consider whether you would be willing to put up with higher running or more regular maintenance costs, or if the revenue budget is likely to be similarly constrained.
What level of operational support do you expect to have?
It's important to think about how easy to operate and maintain you want the installation to be after the builders have left:
- Low - a 'fit and forget' type of solution.
- Reasonably technical - a system that may require some ongoing fine-tuning to maintain maximum operating efficiency.
- Technical - a technical person is available on-site most days who can make any necessary operational adjustments.
- Be careful about committing to a solution that requires ongoing support from the manufacturer or installer, as this might cost you more than you expect.
- High or regular demand for heat and/or hot water - such as in sheltered accommodation or at a leisure facility with a swimming pool.
- Buildings are only used occasionally, intermittently or seasonally.
- Buildings are used (or not used) in the evenings and at weekends.
- High electricity demand, perhaps with 24-hour lighting, but a relatively low demand for heat.
- No year-round demand for heat.
What is the arrangement of the property or buildings?
It's best to start with a sketch plan, and look for opportunities to link sites. You might find that you have:
- Single building - quite compact, maybe on several storeys.
- Single building - rambling, built over lots of different periods with a range of existing levels of insulation and methods of heating.
- Low density - dispersed over a wide area.
- High density, or arranged in a linear pattern. This might be suitable for a heat main (district heating system) with a centralised combined heat and power system.
If the project includes some new buildings, you might be able to use layout and orientation to optimise the potential for renewable energy, without adding to the construction costs at all.
- Medium-sized system powering a group of houses or buildings.
- Medium-sized system for a main building (such as a leisure centre) where the surplus of energy (heat or electricity) is exported to the surrounding buildings.
- Small-sized system where a group of households form a community and work together to commission and purchase individual systems thereby reducing the cost by bulk purchasing and simultaneous installation.
- Plenty of land that might be suitable for trenches for a ground source heat pump.
- Convenient access to a substantial body of water (large pond, lake or tidal river) that might act as a water source for heat pumps (or cooling).
- Convenient access to a water course with a rapid flow or significant head (height) that could be used for small-scale hydropower.
- Storage space (for example, an unused cellar) that could be used for biomass.
- A source of logs or other timber that could be used for biomass, or space where fuel crops could be grown nearby and a suitable area for it to dry off.
- Access to a hilltop or other exposed site that might be suitable for wind power.
- A reasonably large roof area suitable for capturing solar energy - facing between south-east and south-west and not overshaded by trees or other buildings.
- Are you in a National Park, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or other designated area of high landscape sensitivity?
- Does your project involve a listed building or a building of historic value, or is it in a conservation area?
- Is the area sheltered - for example, by tall buildings or trees?
- Are you in a smoke control zone?
- Is noise likely to be a particular issue?
- Don't select a technology just because you can get a grant for it but not for others. Make sure that it's the right technology for your community.
- Don't just go for highly visible or 'glamorous' technologies. Ensure that you've considered the more duller and less visible (but often highly cost-effective) technologies such as insulation or improving air-tightness.
- Be careful about going for highly innovative or unproven technologies. They might turn out to be excellent, but can you afford to be a guinea pig?
- Make sure your community or user group understands the reasons behind your decision. Avoid installing something because there's a small but vocal support group in its favour. Listen to what your community wants - they are the ones who will have to live with the solution you adopt.
Once you have a clearer picture of what you expect to get out of your project and the direction you're heading in, it's time to look at the various options available and the technologies involved.
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