WREN. Stephen Frankel

Talk Report

Back to an innovative future for Cornwall’s market towns?

Stephen Frankel talked about ways in which technological and policy developments offer particular opportunities that chime with Cornwalls social and physical geography. Stephen is Chair of WREN.

Back to an innovative future for Cornwall’s market towns? Tuesday 14th January. Stephen Frankel.

Wadebridge with a population of 8,300 has established the Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN). The speaker began by drawing the similarities between Wadebridge and St Ives and questioned; does the geographical condition of ‘being on the edge’ give an edge? St Ives peripheral situation to the contemporary world was centralised when historically Britain was a sea faring nation. Thinking about ‘smart Cornwall’ requires the reconsideration of suppositions.

Stephen stated that the current public discourse on energy issues is confusing and conflicting statements reflect current conflicting political ideals. Wren had adopted an approach to energy issues by beginning from looking at local issues. Energy consumption accounts for £4million of the economy in Wadebridge, taking responsibility for the local energy distribution gives both control and part of the profit straight back into the local market.

Cornwall was industrialised but not urbanised and so made for distributed energy systems. He reminded the audience of the changes we are able to quickly accommodate and used the example of how we had gone from being passive in receiving information in the 20th century to the 21st century shift of involvement and engagement from the revolution of the internet: significant change to perceived normals can be quickly adopted.

WREN was established in Wadebridge through a programme of community engagement; the goals of reducing energy consumption and generating 30% of requirements through renewables; the benefits are retained within the local community.  The programme is monitored by Exeter University and the model established by Wren is intended to be replicable.

The scheme began in 2011 with the opening of an ‘Energy Shop’ and establishment of a Coop with 1,000 members and growing. The organisation engages with key local organisations and collaborates with local and central government. The Wren has been introduced as the local currency unit, again to benefit the local market.

The worked example was given of how the costs of lighting the Wadebridge War Memorial had been reduced by 2000% by sourcing the energy through renewable resources now supplied by WREN, whereas the Town Council had been forced to turn the lights off because the costs were exorbitant, placing it in local control means the lights have been turned back on.

Through the Energy Shop WREN acts as a trusted intermediary giving help and advice to householders and small businesses in fulfilling their energy requirements, seeking suppliers, installing renewables and identifying grant funding. The next phase of activity that has commenced is for WREN to own the means of energy production; the introduction of local tariffs with local ownership, the implementation of this has started and the pathway is available so it is not simply aspirational. These local arrangements are complimentary to the grid distribution system (the grid distribution system is weakened by the fact the the large centres for energy generation are far from population centres) and including locally generated renewables will make the distribution more dynamic. The shift to local production with arrangements being managed locally is intended to be gradual so that outlying communities do not get left out and national distribution remains.  At the turn of the 20th century local energy supply companies both gas and electric were common. The cooperative established by WREN is an Industrial Providence Society with £1 life membership and one member one vote. There are asset locks in these arrangements that prevent the Society being taken over by energy giants.

Another worked example was given in relation to the replication of this programme. The Isle of Eigg has a population of 91 and now has its autonomous energy source. The numerical square of that population is practically the population of Wadebridge and the numerical square of the population of Wadebridge equates to the population of the UK.  The speaker reminded us that Cornwall was a world leader in engineering innovation in the 19th century.

Before 1800 Wadebridge had been largely self reliant in energy production, it is on course to return again to being largely self reliant after 2015. This local energy market with a community owned supply company recreates the core values of the market town.

WREN is part of the neighbourhood plan for Wadebridge.

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