17 February 2022

Helping rural communities transition to net zero: solar powered village halls

Innovation project

As rural communities across the UK continue to deal with the damage caused by storms Arwen, Malik and Corrie so far this winter, we are reminded that climate change is not a future problem; it is here, and we need to adapt as fast as possible, writes Adrienne Attorp, research assistant at NICRE based at Newcastle University.

This means both taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate future warming – that is, transitioning to ‘net zero’ – and increasing our ability to be resilient to changes that are already unavoidable.

A key part of what NICRE does is support rural regions to help tackle society’s ‘grand challenges’, including the climate emergency. To achieve this, NICRE is actively working to foster resilient and sustainable rural economies through research and practical action.

We do this by supporting innovation projects in rural communities. Such projects serve as test beds for exciting initiatives that have potential to not only make an appreciable change in the communities in which they take place, but also to be applied in other communities and scaled up. We aim to learn what ‘best practice’ looks like so we can support other communities to do the same. We also aim to influence policy by demonstrating to policymakers what can be achieved.

One such innovation project here in the North East is the solar powered village halls initiative which was showcased recently as part of Village Halls Week, run by Action with Rural Communities in Rural England (ACRE). Led by Community Action Northumberland (CAN) and being delivered in partnership with NICRE and the Rural Design Centre (RDC), this project is working to support village halls and other community buildings in rural Northumberland to transition to net zero. In doing so, not only are community buildings helping mitigate their emissions, but they are also saving on energy bills and becoming more energy resilient.

The project started with a design sprint, funded by NICRE and run by RDC. Data generated during the sprint enabled CAN and RDC to apply to the North East Rural Community Energy Fund (RCEF) for a feasibility study on the idea.  This involved 19 community buildings in 15 locations across Northumberland and led to three strands of activity:

  1. Opportunities for buildings to install solar power to offset their energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. This has resulted in multiple new installations, due to be complete this spring. The models used will also be shared with other community groups across the region.
  2. Opportunities to install battery storage at a number of the locations, allowing generation at times when the buildings are less busy to be either released at busier times or sold into the grid. Together, CAN, RDC and NICRE are working with sustainability consultancy Urban Foresight to develop a proof of concept for this work. We have also recently submitted a bid to fund the stage two feasibility work required to take such installations forward.
  3. The concept of a full virtual powerplant, integrating supply and demand across multiple locations to achieve maximum cost and carbon savings. This is more difficult to implement; the current regulatory environment means that this concept is not immediately viable, but will become more attractive over time.

Benefits for rural economies

NICRE is excited to be supporting this project, which we hope will lead the way in bringing forward investment of this nature in rural regions. Beyond the direct advantages of installing this technology in rural regions, there is also great potential for rural economies to benefit more widely, as rural firms become integrated into value chains for manufacture of solar panels and batteries. We are keen to see rural regions be at the forefront of the green energy revolution.

If you are involved in running a community building in Northumberland and would like to find out more about this work, please contact me at adrienne.attorp@newcastle.ac.uk.

Alongside our work with rural village halls, NICRE is supporting another Northumberland-based net zero initiative with residents in Humshaugh – the focus of the next blog in this series.