Comment | 'Small scale projects can reap big energy rewards'
By Celine Stretton, (MSc Environmental Sustainability and Green Technology postgraduate student and former ‘Smart Energy Network Demonstrator’ research associate for Keele University). This article first appeared as a Personally Speaking column in the Stoke Sentinel in October 2023.
In August 2023, renewable energy accounted for 35.9% of our national electricity supply (23.6% wind, 6.8% solar, 4.2% biomass and 1.3% hydro) – yet we could achieve so much more. We have the potential to generate 100% of our domestic energy needs with greater investment in infrastructure and green technology.
We all know we need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, with renewable technologies offering a plethora of potential solutions. This is a real opportunity to take control of local-level power generation, give agency to communities, and provide additional benefits such as enhancing biodiversity. We are finally realising how working with nature brings real and lasting benefits to humankind too, from the pollination of plant-life to protection from extreme weather events via our floodplains. Put simply, greater biodiversity leads to an increase in natural resilience. We also have a responsibility to protect and nurture our environment. In September 2023, the BBC announced a nature crisis; one in six species are at risk of extinction in Great Britain.
The success of the 12,300-panel solar park and 2 wind turbines at Keele University is testament to the potential Staffordshire holds and can actively contribute to decarbonising electricity use, as well as closely monitoring the impacts on wildlife and habitats. The University strives to be an industry leader in green technology implementation and innovation.
There are opportunities for local businesses including farmers to play a key role in renewable technology projects which also offer environmental benefits to surrounding communities. Blythe Solar Farm will have the 'ability to power 7,107 homes in [the] Staffordshire Moorlands District annually'. Consultations have been held for a proposed extension which could increase the capacity to power over 4,600 additional homes in the district each year and 'prevent 9,146 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually'. The installation could allegedly benefit local biodiversity more than if the development was not happening at all; as with current pressures on farming and the decline of government support for environmental projects, our nature and wildlife are both suffering against a backdrop of economic struggle.
Rivers are another untapped renewable resource. A local example where the power of water has been harnessed is at Norbury Weir. Here, a 100kW hydroelectric turbine, capable of producing enough power for over 120 homes annually illustrates how small-scale green energy generation can have a meaningful impact for both humanity and nature. Located on the river Dove, it has been operational for over 6 years now. Having studied this project for my undergraduate dissertation, I have witnessed the impacts from start to present. Part of the planning consent for the installation required a specialised fish pass to be integrated, which enables migrating fish populations in the river to travel past the weir to breeding grounds upstream. This action has supported local biodiversity and habitat connectivity, enhancing the natural environment for many generations to come.
In the wake of Rishi Sunak "weakening" the UK government's stance on green policies, it is increasingly up to us on a local level to make a real difference to our lived experiences in the Staffordshire area. Stoke-on-Trent has felt the decline of its signature industries in the past, but the green technology revolution is a real chance to decarbonise collectively and invite further investment into the area.
So, what can we all do to help implement small-scale change on a widespread approach? Primarily, improving your own energy efficiency if you are in a position to be able to do so is beneficial. Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council typically recommends on its website: to insulate your house, turn appliances off, and switch to energy-saving light bulbs. However, you could also consider finding out more about local renewable projects and proposals, and whether additional natural benefits are also being incorporated. Join or even create grass-roots support groups which could collectively strive for as much ecological benefit as possible to be coupled within future projects to maximise conservation efforts.
Encouraging local projects that combine the benefits of renewable power generation with conscious efforts to increase ecological value hold the potential to create win-win scenarios that communities can be proud to support.
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