Instead of tackling these challenges one house at a time, the innovative Trent Basin housing development in Nottingham shows how to solve them simultaneously for whole neighbourhood 'energy bubbles', using three key principles.
The first principle is: 'reduce, reduce, reduce'.
At Trent Basin, the first two phases comprise 76 homes with the 'fabric-first' approach, which ensures that energy is not lost through the building fabric or that it can be freely harnessed by letting the sun shine through well orientated windows. Informing and empowering occupants can also make a huge difference. Residents have access to a range of data from their individual power circuits via their smart heating to their communal Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, all accessed via a smart speaker.
The data is also accessible via individual energy reports, which enable friendly competitions with the neighbours – if they choose to reveal their usage. In addition to saving one household £20 a month on their electricity bill, this fosters community spirit, which led to a community library, community recycling hub and community assault course being set up.
The second principle is: 'generate energy locally and use it locally'.
Electricity is like any other commodity. Transporting it and processing it adds inefficiencies. So the more we generate locally, the more efficient the system. At Trent Basin, community owned solar panels, battery storage and enabling infrastructure were installed at construction, keeping capital costs low and shifting renewables from the opt-in to the opt-out choice, making it more accessible to all. Providing shared access to this locally generated electricity, or storing it for peak-time use, also makes the community more resilient to network issues.
The third principle is: 'be flexible'.
Electricity has a short shelf-life. It needs to be consumed as it is being generated, yet it is sold at a relatively fixed price to users. At Trent Basin, we are working with innovative suppliers to offer time-based pricing, which can change up to every 30 minutes. The Trent Basin ESCO (Energy Service Company) has secured an Ofgem derogation – a supervised relaxation of the rules – allowing it to combine utility bills with 'behind-the-meter' bills, i.e. where the ESCO sells solar electricity directly to customers, bypassing the grid meter. Revenues flow back into the community, making the scheme even more enticing to customers and democratising the energy system.
Trent Basin has demonstrated how to come together as a local community and make change. Now, as a global community, we need to follow suit; because buildings don't use energy, people do.
As a community energy scheme, the success of this project was dependent on the ability to engage the local community and secure their active buy-in and participation. A number of methods and engagement tools were employed to do this, including website and social media channels, an online platform, a physical community energy hub where meetings and workshops were held, an interactive virtual 3D energy model, monthly energy reports, and in-home smart voice-controlled and visual technologies. The project also engaged extensively with other stakeholders, such as the developer / estate agents (to inform prospective participants about the scheme at the time of purchasing the property) and the residents association (to get independent advice and engagement options).
Evaluation of these engagement mechanisms yielded a number of useful learning points for similar schemes.
Evidence showed that engagement with the scheme was effective at improving residents' awareness of energy issues, but also that they became more involved with decision making in their community and took part in community-based activities more often.
By understanding community energy consumption, energy schemes like Trent Basin can more effectively manage a smart local energy system and ensure that these systems are resilient and adaptable for future demands and constraints.
The engagement strategy integrated tools that facilitated discussion, visualisation and interaction. This allowed for timely delivery of information to participants but also enabled them to understand and take an active role in the scheme.
It was important to allow flexibility in ways to access the scheme; for instance, some residents preferred face to face interaction at times.
The project also offers learning points from implementing the energy systems side, for example: early engagement with DNO (distribution network operator) to understand constraints; early engagement with suppliers / contractors to ensure feasibility; early engagement with developers, so energy systems and monitoring equipment can be installed during construction (which reduces overall costs and disruption); and foreseeing any ethics/GDPR issues and ensure contracts can accommodate these.
Battery usage (kWh of energy used to support the grid).
Household electrical consumption.
Household gas consumption.
Self-consumption ratio of renewables within individual buildings and as a community.
Household bill reduction.
Flexible energy provision.