(my first submission to Council’s Strategic Finance Committee in 2021)
There are so many GB Councils delivering for their ratepayers and tackling Climate Change at the same it is hard to choose any one. BUT West Suffolk Council did come to make a presentation to 0ur Council at the Killeavy Castle Hotel in South Armagh. So it is only fair to give them pride of place.
WEST SUFFOLK SHOWED OUR COUNCIL EXACTLY WHAT TO DO
Many sitting Councillors were at the Council’s Climate Change Symposium in March 2020.
We saw a very impressive presentation from Energy and Environment team leader from West Suffolk. This Council has a population/number of households similar to ourselves but a lesser budget for a broader range of responsivities. (I can email their presentation to anybody who wants it)
Andrew Oswald explained that their Community Energy Plan was aimed at giving them an income independent of central government through renewable energy investment based on achieving the following outcomes;
- A long term, sustainable source of revenue for the Council
- Support households, businesses and communities in West Suffolk to be less reliant on fossil-based energy
- Locally-owned renewable energy generation to the benefit of the local taxpayer
This Conservative-led council (like many others across England) is using investment in PV farms to create substantial additional income in the face of 10 years of cut-backs in Council funding from Westminster. We have not had anything like the austerity that Councils have had to endure in England. West Suffolk run dozens of projects across their District. A solar farm owned by West Suffolk Council has smashed generation targets in its third year of operation, taking its overall income to £4 million on top of its previous £1.5 million which was £100,000 ahead of budget this year.
Andrew explained that even if we just supplied the grid, we could expect 5p per kilowatt and a payback of ~ 7/10 years. However were we to partner with a business that needed energy we could probably get 10p per Kilowatt with a quicker payback. If we were to replace our own power needs and not spend 20p per Kilowatt the payback would be even quicker again. https://www.westsuffolk.gov.uk/environment/climate-change/toggam-solar-farm.cfm
Impressive as this is, what West Suffolk is doing pales into insignificance when compared to other Councils in England. There are too many to list here, but there are 2 more examples below;
WHERE COULD WE SITE OUR NEWRY, MOURNE AND DOWN COUNCIL-OWNED PV FARMS?.
The West Suffolk Council’s presentation at the Killeavy Hotel highlighted a wide range of site possibilities. Council premises, Council using other peoples’ premises but selling them cheap power at 10p per KWh, using car-parks, and even waste ground. Their main PV farm was on 180,000 Square meters of ordinary agricultural land with sheep grazing beneath. There are lots of fields like this in our area that are near potential grid connection points that we could work with NIE Networks and our Planning Office to deliver.
Were we only to use our disused landfill sites we would have many acres of land to turn into a PV farm in the manner of these English Councils. We have disused sites throughout the district in most DEA’s. It took me just 3 hours research in 2020 to identify the following Council brown-field sites;
Aughnagun in Mayobridge – a good 97,000 square meter site for a PV farm with power lines installed for methane gas generators that could serve PV. The planning office even agreed in principle for the upgrading of the small wind-turbine on this site going back 12 years but we failed to apply for planning. This decision cost Council a revenue loss of ~£90,000 per annum.
Croreagh is another potential giant 127,000 square meters PV farm. The site has an electrical supply and leachate treatment.
Moorhill near Newry has an enormous 55,000 square meters available. Being near Newry there is a potential for not just supplying the grid- but other businesses in the manner of the English Councils above or even the Council itself should the Council set up its own energy company.
Newtonhamilton – Our lands here are 300% bigger than Croke Park at 33,000 square meters. This would be a large PV farm not visible to local residents as it would be lying on the ground. Council managers did propose putting a 250kw turbine a number of years ago but a local action group virulently opposed the idea and a friend of mine reported back that residents were concerned that wind turbines give you cancer….(they do not). Given the fact there were subsidies back then, we lost about £120,000pa from this decision.
Drumnakelly near Ballynahinch – This site is much bigger than the others. Again, there is a good power connection to the site that would support a PV farm. Ballynahinch is one of the few locations in our council near to the main transmission grid. At this site Councillors voted to apply for planning for a wind turbine with an annual revenue about 13 years ago of £120,000 per annum as subsidies were available back then. We got planning but the project sat on managements action list for years with Councillors regularly complaining about it not being done. It never got done losing Council well over £1 million in revenue down the years
Inch Abbey – Another giant site. I asked legal services to check if we still own this site as a large amount of money was spent there in 2020 to remediate the methane gas issue. It is a huge site sloping gently south towards the Quoile River. This land is now owned by a private recycling company in the Downpatrick area with a long history of working with Council. It is likely they would partner with Council to generate big revenues as a PV farm.
- Were we to feed a commercial business our energy for half the grid price – Council revenue would double, and net cash flow would treble – West Suffolk does this with some of their installations.
- If we were to use it on one of our major sites our ‘revenue’ would be 4 times higher as we could offset our energy costs at over 20per kwh
- Were we to build in batteries like Warrington Council (see above), revenue would be increased by at least 7 times as it would become ‘dispatchable energy’.
REAL-WORLD WORKED EXAMPLE
West Suffolk’s Environment & Energy Team Leader kindly sent me that figures for the next PV farm they are creating in their area as follows;
It is a small 9MW solar farm with a build cost= £4.1m (£453 per Kw installed) and other development costs of £400K. They are paying a farmer land rent £20k per year (for 40 years) – we have so much unused land that this rental would hardly be necessary for us.
Based on West Suffolk’s experience to date, the operation and maintenance budget is £50k pa.
West Suffolk is budgeting an income of 7775MW and £50 per megawatt = £388,750pa. However income has often been in excess of £60 per MW.
Payback therefore is (4100+400) / (388-50) = 13 years on a 40 year project but the price of energy will increase over time so realistically the payback will be between 7 and 10 years. West Suffolk’s borrowing cost is similar to ours. Ken Montgomery supplied me with what our borrowing cost would be for a project like this £173,277.88 per annum.
So, from year 1 there would be a positive cash flow of £165,000 if Newry Mourne and Down District Council were to copy West Suffolk on this small-scale project. These figures are 2020/21 so the figure in 2023 would be closer to £190,000pa cash flow
OTHER ENGLISH COUNCIL EXAMPLES
The examples are legion, here are 2 more
WARRINGTON Labour-led Warrington Borough Council has become the first local authority to produce all its own electricity from green energy, owning two giant solar farms in Hull and York that are not even based in Warrington’s own Council area. These are budgeted to generate millions of pounds in profits per annum for 30 years. They are now about to launch a third one. Here is an image of the York one which is backed up by large scale batteries providing power 24×7 and 365 https://www.warrington.gov.uk/news/gridserve-completes-game-changing-hybrid-solar-farm-warrington-borough-council
SWINDON Conservative-run Swindon running joint venture with 3 other councils to make itself both zero carbon and financially much better off. It already has several large PV projects and farms live – see their details here;
CONCLUSION AND PROPOSAL
In summary, I suggested back in 2020/2021 Newry Mourne and Down Council took the following action;
- setting a short medium and long-term target for Council owned PV farms. I would suggest £100,000 by 2022, £500,000 by 2025 and £1 Million by 2030.
- We would need to strengthen Council’s energy officer post into a team with clear objectives as in West Suffolk.
- In parallel with this, Marie and the senior management team need to inform NIE Networks that our Council has had a change of policy and that investment will be needed to prepare our area for the New Circular or Electrified Economy. Council needs to agree where substantial Council-owned PV farms and wind farms should be based as part of a package of changes to our area that will also support the electrification of transport before 2030. This requires a substantial upgrade and investment to our transmission and distribution infrastructure in the same manner achieved in Counties Fermanagh, Derry, Tyrone and Antrim.
This was passed in principal – and we agreed a site was to be brought forward – but nothing has happened yet.
Councillor Cadogan Enright October 2020