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At the Energy Saving Trust, there's a firm belief that good data and collaborative working is the only way to bring about local low-carbon change – so it's always interesting to hear about others coming from a similar angle.
SmartKlub is a relatively new start-up, established by experienced energy industry figures. One of its services is an online platform that aims to bring key players together in delivering community energy. We spoke to the company's CEO, Charles Bradshaw-Smith, to find out what it's all about.
He said: “This is my distillation of ten years in the distributed energy industry. The main problems I've seen in getting community energy off the ground are expense and economies of scale – it's not just finance. Developing trust in suppliers takes a lot of time and resource, and that's what makes it niche at the moment.”
He believes that the UK is currently lagging well behind its potential in creating local energy networks - a view shared by the government in their Community Energy Strategy: Full Report, as well as other independent reports, such as The Role of Community Energy Systems in the UK Resilient Energy Supply. He explained:
“The complexity of it all is a factor. Decisions need to made in accordance with local conditions and resources, to meet local needs. But design costs are often expensive, and projects small. If you've got high fixed costs and fairly low returns, that equals trouble. As projects get smarter the complexity increases, so a new approach to community energy is needed.
“There has been a move to try and make 'cookie cutter' one-size-fits-all approaches, but that doesn't work. Each community is different, and we want to maximise local knowledge, and work with people on the ground.”
Click image to view larger in a new window. Source: SmartKlub - How does it work?
The concept SmartKlub offers is about analysing local opportunities with data and modelling, then bringing together cities, suppliers and local groups via an online platform – with some real-life engagement too. Bradshaw-Smith said:
“We're trying to move community energy from being something niche to much more mainstream. It's about creating a platform where local groups can get involved, have our insights on local potential explained and help formulate projects.
“Through an online platform, all projects are social media enabled, making it almost like a TripAdvisor for community energy. This builds confidence. Then you can offer the project to the supply chain – the experts who'll get the project going. This is what we are doing in Milton Keynes with the council and the Community Action Platform for Energy.
“It's good for suppliers, as normally they'd essentially be waiting at the end of the phone. This brings the geographic concentrations they're looking for right to them, giving the economies of scale that everyone can be happy with.”
The company aims to ultimately have a SmartKlub in every city – and there is flexibility in the way it works to bring schemes about. In Leeds, for example, it has been sponsored by the local authority to find better ways of engaging with the supply chain. The focus has been on renovating 116 tower blocks under its control. Bradshaw-Smith said:
“One of the issues at local authorities is they don't have the time or budget to talk to every supplier. We hold events where a range of possible suppliers can work through the detail. It's a two-way exchange which concentrates effort and expertise.”
In Nottingham, it's working with a developer on a brownfield site at the possibility of setting up a community energy service company (ESCO), where residents would have a supplier contract giving them access to cheaper, greener energy from solar PV, heat pumps, and demand side management in the form of energy storage systems.
He said: “Community ESCOs have quite a rocky ride so far. We're trying to find a way to do them that's more suitable and gives local people the confidence to join in.”
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A key factor in successful local schemes is keeping the impact of green energy supply close to home. This is a firm part of his business's mission, Bradshaw-Smith explained:
“We want to build capacity in the cities we work in, rather than it being about 'helicoptering in' experts from outside who leave once the project's complete. We want permanent, local jobs, more resilience and the profits staying local. We're trying to do that with a sophisticated platform to collaborate and share ideas.
But he takes the view that the historical wisdom on what local groups are suitable to get involved with local energy are outdated. He added:
“We're trying to pioneer a different sort of community engagement. At the moment local energy organisations tend to be rooted in one very enthusiastic person who gets together a group. But this can be a slow process, so we're not just looking at groups set up to look at energy. We want to tap into existing groups, be those resident's associations, faith groups, political groups or sports clubs.
“If they have a strong and established structure, why wouldn't they be interested in energy? I think most people would be interested in a clean, secure energy supply and local jobs and opportunities.”