“There is no vaccine for climate change and no simple expedient whereby we can flick a switch and it will all go away. We are coming through an existential pandemic crisis and now have to face the existential crisis of climate change”
These are the words of scientist and business leader Dr Debbie Trebilco as she opened the Rural Commission’s latest evidence session.
During a day-long online hearing this week, the commission, which consists of eight independent experts, heard evidence about the huge opportunities and challenges presented to North Yorkshire by the growth in renewable energies and the need to make fundamental changes to reduce carbon omissions here.
Themes which repeatedly emerged during the sessions were the imperative to work with public and private sector partnerships, the vital role to be played at hyper local level – with communities driving their own projects and programmes, and the extensive job opportunities the renewable sector can offer the county.
Dr Debbie Trebilco has 30 years’ experience in business and an extensive knowledge, experience and passion for renewable energies and climate change initiatives. She said: “North Yorkshire’s expanse is also potentially a treasure chest for renewables. The science is there to produce the energy, but it needs to be generated and stored and there are many areas of the county, which naturally lend themselves to that purpose if we can transport the energy to and from them.
“This is a truly momentous opportunity not to be missed if we are to play our full part in the race to become carbon neutral.
“And let’s get practical here. There are up to 17,000 new jobs across Yorkshire and Humber as a direct result of moving through this transition to renewable energies.
“North Yorkshire has a missing generation of 25 to 45-year-olds and a low-wage economy, which is heavily dependent of hospitality and agriculture. We need to explore how we can refocus our skills and education so our young people can benefit from these skilled jobs.
“Imagine the positive impact this could have! More higher-paid jobs, more children in our rural schools, more vibrant communities. A future our youngsters can aspire to right on our doorsteps. No more haemorrhaging youth and talent.”
Nationally, the Government has set a target for the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050. In North Yorkshire, the county council, which set up the Rural Commission last year, has set a target to be carbon neutral by, or as close as possible to, 2030.
Professor Simon Hodgson, Pro-Vice Chancellor for research and innovation at Teesside University, is also leading on the development of a new “net-zero” campus for the university focussed on decarbonisation and the circular economy. Giving evidence, he said: “In the UK, the average person produces circa 4.5 tonnes of carbon per year. In North Yorkshire that rises to 6.5 tonnes and the more rural the higher that rises - so in Ryedale it’s nearly 9 tonnes per person. The transformation in how we produce and use energy is coming fast and the communities of rural North Yorkshire are likely to be amongst the most impacted by these changes. However, the reality is that the traditional energy technologies will be largely obsolete; not cost-effective and be socially unacceptable within 20 to 25 years. Doing nothing is not an option.
“People living in rural areas need to travel further to access goods and services. The limited gas distribution networks, the weak resilience of electricity infrastructure and high costs to upgrade mean rural communities can be at the end of the line when it comes to energy connections and different solutions will probably be needed to those in urban areas. There is a challenge here for rural regions, but, equally, there are many opportunities to take a lead.”
A broad number of experts discussed the future opportunities and merits of fuels such as hydrogen – green hydrogen, blue hydrogen, bio hydrogen fuels – ammonia, wind, solar and water sourced renewable energies.
The Very Rev John Dobson is the Dean of Ripon Cathedral and Chair of the Rural Commission: “What we are hearing is that the greatest barrier for North Yorkshire in taking advantage of these possibilities is the lack of a solid infrastructure. That presents a conundrum when we also know that the best solutions for producing climate friendly energy sit within local communities. Without a more reliable infrastructure to transport the energy to the grid to make it a commercial enterprise the county faces being left behind and unable to exploit the environmental and economic possibilities.”
It was a challenge which received a welcome response with an apparent shift in thinking by the major network providers and the national regulator, which appears to be moving away from a demand-led system of energy provision to a new, needs-driven approach that puts investment in infrastructure up front to accelerate progress and respond to local need.
This positive shift in thinking was echoed by Dr Patrick Erwin, Policy Director at Northern Powergrid. “The regulatory regime to date has been designed to encourage investment just in time. This is changing, for the next regulatory period that will run from 2023 to 2028 we will see a shift to a regime that allows for strategic investment, so I think we are moving in the right direction.”
Dean John continued: “There can be no doubt that this is an exciting proposition and a necessary one for the environment and the economy. We must understand what opportunity our large land mass offers us. We have a resilient and innovative agricultural sector looking for new opportunities and one is certainly energy, but the challenges of connectivity are significant.
“It is clear that there is a vital need to ensure that all the initiatives, agencies, partners and sectors, including education, need to work together with strong leadership to address the challenges and deliver the opportunities so that access to renewable energy is affordable and that the power of clean energy can be harnessed as an economic driver here.”
The Commission heard evidence from 10 experts in their field during its latest meeting on Tuesday (24 Nov), including Emma Bridge, CEO of Community Energy England; Daniel Heery, Director of Charge My Street; Dr Jeffrey Hardy, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute Imperial College; Brian Scanlon, Farming and Agriculture Energy Specialist; and the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership. Evidence from other areas where projects have been ongoing for some time was also discussed.
The Rural Commission was established in autumn 2019 to examine the particular challenges for North Yorkshire’s most rural areas. It has examined a broad range of subjects to date, including farming, schools, transport, jobs and the economy, digital connectivity and housing. Commissioners have also visited communities and projects to learn first-hand how to harness local momentum to drive change. In early 2021 they will draw on the evidence base to make a series of recommendations which will be aimed at helping these communities to grow and prosper. These recommendations will then need to be considered by all the sectors and agencies involved, including national government.
Local case studies
Whitby Esk Energy
Inspired by the vision of local people in the Esk Valley, Danby Parish Council and the North York Moors National Park, a group of residents set out in 2006 to reduce the carbon footprint of the Esk Valley.
With a grant, a community share issue, three loans and a long-term lease from a local landowner, the community-owned hydroelectric project was finally commissioned in 2012.
Managed and run by local volunteers, the team welcomes students from local schools to learn about clean energy.
Their motto of “Learn Share Educate” underpins Whitby Esk Energy’s work to inspire the next generation to love science and engineering. University students from Teesside, Durham and Hull have used the project to study engineering and the river environment.
The Whitby Esk team won Cabinet Office funding to run a successful peer-mentoring programme for other aspiring community groups around the country.
Named Eureka! by local school children, they show their support for their local community green energy project by declaring “A rainy day is a hydro day!”
Settle Hydro was set up nearly 11 years ago – it started generating power in January 2010. Steve Amphlett, Director at Settle Hydro, was running a group in Settle at the time called Going Green, which looked at introducing green initiatives. They were approached by a company that was looking at installing hydros in the community, but needed a partner.
Steve said: “We had to raise money to put it in, through a combination of grants, we set ourselves up as an Industrial and Provident Society for the benefit of the community – essentially a co-operative – so we could offer shares, so people could make investments in the scheme.
“It’s been quite a big job. We were one of the first community-owned hydros in Yorkshire. In the country as a whole, we were one of the pioneers. We have about 200 members/shareholders who have invested money. Most are local but some have connections in the area, too. We look after the business side and in terms of looking after the plant we have some other volunteers who help us.”
15 per cent of the Green Energy produced is used by local housing with the remaining 85 per cent being sold into the National Grid.
Project Purple in Hovingham was formed in 2017. It's a community action group, which is aiming for Hovingham to become carbon neutral during the 2030s.
In 2018, with the help of the Hovingham Action Group, Project Purple put together a community survey. It received an 84 per cent response rate, covering all aspects of village life.
68 per cent of residents were concerned about climate change, and 22 per cent of those wanted to know more about it.
Residents expressed significant interest and support for:
1. Recycling, reusing and repairing more
2. Reducing daily energy demand by improving energy efficiency particularly in homes and transport
3. Developing renewable energy sources
Caroline Davis, Communications Volunteer at Project Purple, said: “In November 2019, over 35 residents participated in a pilot community network meeting by conference call to share their concerns about climate change and what can be done about it, both individually and as a community. Together we identified the priorities to achieve carbon neutral in the 2030s.
“We’ve plans to set up a shared shed for residents to share tools and equipment and in doing so reduce consumption.
“Earlier this year, we held our first Repair Café where residents brought along items in need of repair saving them from needless landfill. This will be resumed when the current restrictions are lifted.
“We’ve also installed an electric car charging point in the village, too.
“Providing advice and guidance to residents to reduce their energy use and improve the energy efficiency of their homes, particularly retrofitting older properties, is a key priority, too.
“Due to Covid-19, we have had to change the way we do things. We appreciate the support we’ve received from North Yorkshire County Council’s Stronger Communities programme.
“It was a fabulous opportunity to meet with the North Yorkshire Rural Commissioners in Hovingham. We shared the challenges facing rural communities over the next 10 to 30 years and what could be done about them. The biggest challenge affecting all communities is the impact of climate change.”