From Didcot power station to ‘people’s power station’

Posted on June 27, 2013

Anyone who has travelled in or out of London by train towards the West Country, Wales, or north to Birmingham will have passed the looming presence of Didcot ‘A’ power station and it cooling towers. They have been a feature of the Oxfordshire landscape since 1970. But earlier this year the coal-fired power station was shut down. The newer gas-fired one remains. It has been a significant moment in terms of energy generation in the Thames Valley. Oxfordshire county council has a target of 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 and the in the words of Dr Barbara Hammond Chief Executive of the Oxfordshire Low Carbon Hub:

‘The closure of Didcot A power station this year gives us an opportunity to build an alternative energy future for Oxfordshire a ‘peoples power station’ to replace conventional fossil fuel generating capacity with renewable energy generation and demand reduction.

This is not a fanciful idea but an achievable plan, to replace one of Britain’s largest and best known coal-fired power stations with equivalent, entirely renewable, generation capacity within three years. Oxfordshire is in the unique position of having over 50 communities already working on low carbon activities helping citizens to reduce energy consumption and develop renewable energy schemes. Already the Westmill Solar Co-op, at over 30 acres in extent, the largest community-owned solar park in the world is up and running, as is the Westmill Wind Farm Co-op, providing power for over 2,500 households.

Low Carbon Hub is a new social enterprise established to develop and finance community renewable energy projects throughout Oxfordshire. Set up as a ‘Community benefit society’ whose main trading activities, generating and selling renewable energy, benefit the wider community. The aim of its ‘high net worth’ investors is to raise investment for and develop, renewable energy projects on buildings and land  provided by supportive partners for instance through lease arrangements. An early example is working with the Oxford Bus Company to put solar PV on the roofs of its bus depot in Cowley, which will be completed in June 2013. Discussions are under way with other large local employers to undertake similar projects. 

Smaller but equally important and with significant potential for further development is  the Osney Lock Hydro co-op. The share offer launched in early April 2013 with a £250,000 target, was more than twice oversubscribed, the hoped-for sum having been reached in less than three weeks. Of the 197 shareholders, 62% live in Oxford and 82% in Oxfordshire, though investors have come from as far away as Glasgow. Osney Lock Hydro will provide power for about 50 homes once completed. With a start date in June 2013, it is expected to be generating electricity by February 2014. As well as generating electricity, the scheme which is on the Thames Path in the centre of Oxford, will have an education centre which will be right beside the route of  thousands path users. It will use ‘Archimedes Screw’ turbines which are ‘fish friendly’ and  this will enable the movement of fish up and down this part of the Thames for the first time since the weir was constructed at Osney Lock, over 200 years ago.

Getting the permissions for this scheme and linking its construction timetable  to Environment Agency flood prevention work in the area in the summer of 2013, has proved a major challenge, but the principle has now been demonstrated and there are plans by other riverside low carbon groups to develop similar micro-hydro projects right down the Thames. These community-owned   schemes include Abingdon and Goring, expected to go ahead in 2014, followed by Sandford,  Godstow,  Little Wittenham,  Shifford and Radcot,  with six other private developments  also in the pipeline and one already operating.

None of this has happened overnight and there are significant obstacles to some of the proposals actually becoming reality. But a combination of sheer hard work and determination by a large number of community groups and inspired individuals, some crucial financial support from wealthy individuals, as well as hundreds of co-op investors, the City and County councils and the support of the Environment Agency  and planning authorities (the solar park certainly raised hackles – but locals who were given preferential investment opportunities, supported it) has seen the idea not just take off,  but obtain a significant measure of support.  The vision of replacing the generating capacity  of Didcot ‘A’ with  a ‘peoples power station’ – locally owned and generated  renewable energy by mid-2016, is within reach.

 This article first appeared in the the June 2013 edition of Town and Country Planning