Ynni Anfon Energy – all in a spin!
There are reasons to smile in North Wales this winter, despite all the rain that has been causing havoc elsewhere and the recent disheartening announcements from DECC. In the small village of Abergwyngregyn, they may never have cause to curse the rain again – or at least not for the next forty years or so. The reason? After over five years of effort, some tortuous negotiations and many hundreds of hours of voluntary effort, a small group of local residents have pulled off a major engineering feat. They have harnessed the power of a local river to produce clean, green, renewable electricity, more than enough to power two communities the size of Abergwyngregyn, and they are set fair to generate over £1m of income for their local community over the next 20 years. The turbine started spinning on December 1st making Ynni Anafon Energy Cyf one of only a handful of community energy schemes to have successfully installed renewables technology in Wales.
There is nothing new about hydro-electricity; it was one of the first means of generating electricity that was developed and, as a recent cultural history project has revealed, the hills and valleys of North Wales are littered with the remnants of old and discarded schemes. Nor is it a complicated technology – you pass water down a pipe and use the pressure generated to shoot a jet of water at the paddles of a turbine and make it spin. When connected to a generator, the kinetic energy produced by the rotary motion of the turbine is converted into electrical energy, lights begin to flicker and, job done – a clean, renewable power source is created.
But just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean to say it’s easy. The project in Abergwyngregyn can be regarded as a case in point. The facts behind the scheme are impressive. The water is drawn off from a newly installed, metre high weir about 1 km below Llyn Anafon. To reach the turbine, the water is piped underground for 3km, descending over 230m in the process. The maximum power output from the scheme is 270kW and, based on the known flow of water in the river during a year, it is estimated that the turbine will generate on average 957MWh of electricity annually – that’s enough to power some 230 homes – and will offset some 18,000 tonnes of carbon over its 40 year lifespan.
The scheme has cost over £1.25m to install, £450,900 of which was raised from small investors, both local to the scheme and from further afield across the country. That’s normal people, paying £50 a share because they believe in renewable energy and the benefits that it can bring, both in assisting in the fight against climate change and helping to sustain the economic viability of communities. And as Ynni Anafon Energy Cyf is a cooperative, all those shareholders effectively own the company and can have an equal say in how it is run.
So much for the bare facts, now for some of the complications. The hydro scheme is located in an area of outstanding environmental and ecological importance. Between the intake weir and the turbine house the scheme passes through a Special Area of Conservation (SAC – a European designation), a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a National Nature Reserve (NNR). The responsibility for protecting the environment under these designations lies with Natural Resources Wales, who also happen to be one of two owners of the land over which the scheme runs, the other being the National Trust. The site also lies within the Snowdonia National Park. Consequently, the scope and thoroughness of the environmental and ecological impact assessments that had to be developed in order to secure planning permission were, to say the least, challenging. Similarly, the turbine house, which is located at the entrance to the main path to the Aber Falls and just within the boundary of the Coedydd Aber NNR, is especially sensitive. The selected site had to be chosen so the new building is only visible along a short section of the Falls Path, whilst the design had to minimise the building’s profile and footprint. In addition to screening with trees, it has been faced with local larch and has a single pitch turf (Sedum) roof that helps it to blend into the background.
Little did the members of the local regeneration group, ARC (Abergwyngregyn Regeneration Company), know what they were letting themselves in for when they embarked upon the scheme all those years ago. The driving force behind the project has come from just three members of the community, Jacqui Bugden, Gavin Gatehouse and Hywel Thomas. Together they have negotiated leases, accessed grants and won competitions – in 2012, the project was a winner of the Cooperative Community Energy Challenge which attracted 127 entries from all over the UK, whilst in 2015 it won a Wales Green Energy Award for its work in engaging with the local community. They have commissioned reports and surveys, developed contracts and relationships with a team of experienced local hydro engineers and generally overseen every aspect of the development. And all on a voluntary basis.
“We were volunteers who five years ago knew nothing about hydros and how to build them. But we knew people who did! Keith Jones, Environmental Adviser for the National Trust, was by our side throughout, introducing us to people and organisations that could help. Support has come from Welsh Government’s Ynni’r fro programme, Wales Cooperative Centre and Robert Owen Community Bank. Throughout we have enjoyed the active encouragement of our village community, who now look forward to the next stage”.
So, what next for the group now that the turbine is spinning? Surely it is time to rest on their laurels? Not a bit of it! In order to maximise the benefit to the local community from the scheme, Ynni Anafon Energy now wants to look at how the energy generated by the hydro can be supplied to local homes, thereby reducing the cost of energy paid by local people. The surplus income from the scheme will also be invested in energy efficiency improvements to the local housing stock, making homes in Abergwyngregyn and possibly beyond both warmer, cheaper to run and much more sustainable in the longer term. In addition, the team are already helping to mentor other community energy projects in North Wales, and have recently teamed up with other groups to form a new organisation, Cyd Ynni (Joint Energy), which hopes to make it easier for other communities in the area to develop schemes by sharing knowledge and operational costs.
All in all, there is enough still to do to keep them busy for a few years yet!