HICEC going national

HICEC going national
West Highland Free Press

Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company is going national -on 1st July it is to be renamed Community Energy Scotland. The model of community empowerment which has worked so well in the north of Scotland is to be rolled out across the rest of the country. But it won’t be a big bang approach.

‘We are not going to suddenly be in a position where we can cover the whole of Scotland,’ said HICEC chief executive Nicholas Gubbins. Along with outgoing chairman Lome Macleod, he was instrumental in setting up the community energy company.

‘We will gradually develop our role in the rest of Scotland while continuing and increasing our assistance to community groups in the Highlands and Islands,’ Mr Gubbins added.

Since its formation in December 2004, HICEC has helped well over 200 community energy projects, mainly village halls and schools, cut their bills and their carbon emissions.

Prior to that date, HICEC had been Highland and Island Enterprise’s Community Energy Unit.

‘We always envisaged that HICEC would become entirely independent from HIE by opening its membership to community groups and thereby become a community- based organisation,’ said Mr Gubbins. ‘It has taken us a little while to get to this point but, over the next month, we are set to become Community Energy Scotland, which will be a new non-profit distributing body. We have applied for charitable status and will be opening for membership shortly. Community groups will be our main membership, although others will be able to join as associate members.’

In that same month -December 2004 – three 43-metre-high wind turbines, named Faith, Hope and Charity by locals, were erected on. Gigha with more than a little help from HICEC. This was the first large-scale project geared towards raising community revenue; now there are 28.

‘Westray, North Harris, Tiree and Melness in Sutherland have got planning consent and we are expecting a further 10 to go through the planning process over the next few months, six in Orkney and four on Lewis,’ said Mr Gubbins. ‘These are all projects that are being taken forward by community groups that we have assisted with grant and expertise.

All are a testament to hard work and endurance by the groups concerned -none of them have been easy owing to technical challenges, planning delays- and difficulty in securing actual wind turbines.’ Community groups may have worked hard on their projects -much effort has gone into mollifying Scottish Natural Heritage -but all agree they couldn’t have done it without HICEC. AR nigh on four years, the North Harris Trust have been working on a three-turbine community project at Monan, some three miles north-west of Tarbert.

In February of this year they were finally granted planning permission, despite the best efforts of SNH to thwart them, and trust development manager Alistair Macleod told me the blades should start turning by the end of next year. With an estimated revenue-generating capacity of between £100,000 and £150,000 each year, the Monan scheme will allow the trust to press ahead with a vital affordable housing project at Bunavoneader and the recruitment of an energy and business development officer.

‘As a community, it would have been almost impossible for us to get to this stage without HICEC,’ added Mr Macleod. ‘What they have done over the last three or four years is to give us a lot of financial help for the risk part of the work -the various landscaping, ornithological and civil engineering studies we had to carry out. They also gave us a huge amount of officer help.’

HICEC have also compiled a database of the preparatory studies which all community projects have to undertake. This makes it easier and quicker for new community bodies to get through the planning process. Turbine procurement is another area where HICEC’s expertise has proved invaluable: community groups are often brought face-to-face with manufacturers at special events.

‘HICEC are in close contact with the market,’ observed Mr Macleod. As far as the finance for Monan is concerned, the trust have all the pieces in place. Commericalloans have been all but secured and a £900,000 award has been made from the Big Lottery Fund. On Barra, plans for a single-turbine development on the summit of Ben Scurribhal in Eoligarry are still clearing the regulatory hurdles.

The man leading the process, Gerry Macdonald, local development officer with lomairt aig an Oir, said Barra and Vatersay Community Ltd were in the middle of an evaluation of corncrake movements and had mother eight months of wind readings to take before the project could move on to the next stage.

‘HICEC are always there when you need them,’ he said. ‘You can just pick up the phone-and speak to them.’ This comment was echoed by Henry Mains, secretary of Sleat Community Trust In Skye. A trust subsidiary, Sleat Renewables Ltd, plans to hold a public meeting this summer to discuss a wind power scheme for the peninsula. HICEC have also helped the spin-off with setting up a biomass company to supply Sabhal Mar Ostaig with woodchip -the college itself received HICEC assistance to install its woodchip boilers.

‘It’s only when you sit down and think about it that you realise just what HICEC have done for us,’ said Mr Mains. This open-door policy means that support, both financial and advisory, is more or less on tap for community groups struggling to come to grips with the fiendishly complex business of generating electricity and money.

HICEC themselves want to get in on the act. Company Secretary Marion O’Hara told me that the process of becoming a truly independent company -at the moment they are a subsidiary of Highlands and Islands Enterprise -will eventually culminate in them becoming self-financing, albeit as a non-profit distributing business, through their own renewable energy scheme. Within the next few weeks they will also move into their own business premises in Dingwall. Physical separation from HIE is gathering pace, though financial independence may take a little longer to achieve.

HICEC’s funds are currently channelled from the Scottish Government via HIE. However, HIE cannot fund HICEC to operate outwith the Highlands and Islands. The Sustainable Growth Ministry say their tripling of micro-generation funding will enable HICEC to go national as Community Energy Scotland. This funding is secure until 2011, a spokesman said. Delivery beyond that date is still being worked upon.

One thing for sure is that agencies like HICEC will be at the forefront of combating climate change and the ongoing energy squeeze.

‘The whole energy context has developed rapidly since the establishment of HICEC and it has become even more pressing for IS to adapt with it,’ said Mr Gubbins.

‘Our overall vision has evolved in the light of rapidly-increasing energy costs and a much ‘greater focus on carbon mitigation. ‘We see community groups in the forefront of measures to promote carbon mitigation as well as helping people to adapt to lower energy lifestyles. The groups we have been working with over the years will, we have no doubt, be a focus for this .n their communities, with our help.

‘For this reason, Community Energy Scotland have a new purpose -to build confidence, resilience and wealth at community level in Scotland through sustainable energy development.’ Longer-term, CES see communities generating and using their own power, reducing their reliance on fossil-fuel resources and successfully adapting to very iligh energy costs. ‘Communities in the Highlands and Islands which are so dependent on oil will be the first to show a different way,’ added Mr Gubbins.

‘The challenge is to decouple development activity from fossil-fuel energy use -which won’t be easy, but we’ve made a start.’ Last week HICEC lost out to the Royal National Institute for the Blind in an awards ceremony organised by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. But it’s easy to see why the HICEC philosophy is one for the future.