Ynni Ogwen – Ceir Gwyllt, Snowballs and a revolution baby!
by Meleri Davies
A small corner of Gwynedd has been making an impact on the community energy world over the past three years, and that’s mainly because of the determination of volunteers that wish to use natural energy from rivers to create a better future for their areas. In a nutshell, this is the essence of the Ynni Padarn Peris scheme the other side of the mountain, and Ynni Anafon towards the coastline in Abergwygregyn. This is also the essence of the Ynni Ogwen scheme – a community hydro scheme in Bethesda, the Ogwen Valley, which I’ve had the privilege of working on over the past three years.
Ynni Ogwen was born from a social enterprise, Partneriaeth Ogwen – an organisation that develops re-generation projects in the Ogwen Valley, and my employer as Principal Officer. Developing the Ogwen hydro scheme was one of Partneriaeth Ogwen’s major projects – a fairly simple undertaking you’d think… three years later, I can tell you now, hand on heart that this has been one of the most challenging projects that I’ve ever been part of. On the other hand, it’s a project that has given me and the other volunteers great satisfaction.
‘Car Gwyllt’, literally translated as ‘Wild Car’, is the name given to the vehicle used by quarrymen to dart down the quarry inclines, and it seems that a trip in a car gwyllt is a similar experience to developing a community hydro scheme at times! You feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as there are always policy changes that can throw you off track or at least take you on several diversions along the way!
To cut a long story short, we spent well over a year discussing the location of our hydro scheme with Natural Resources Wales – the organisation that regulates rivers in Wales. There were several options on the cards, but after commissioning a number of studies (fish, bats and trees etc.) and discussing these with NRW, we were diverted and the proposed 500kW scheme was reduced to a 100kW scheme on the Ogwen River in Bethesda. During this stage, the astonishing news came from the Government in Westminster that the Feed in Tariff rates were being reduced at the end of 2015. This completely ruined business plans of many community groups like us across Wales. Luckily for us, this was a break in our financial prospects, but wasn’t fatal.
Obviously, the above is a significant challenge to any community group developing a hydro scheme. Firstly, most community groups don’t have a large financial fund to pay for all the necessary studies, and secondly, most groups don’t have the internal capacity to interpret all the studies that are commissioned. In Ynni Ogwen’s case, we had to apply for a number of grants to help fund this ‘pre-planning/extraction’ phase, and most of this funding came from the Welsh Government.
Unfortunately, we could spend hours discussing the countless difficulties, but I think we’d better leave it there… All I can say is that there is no end to the struggle and there is another significant challenge facing us at the moment, the steep rise in business rates… but that’s a story for another day…
The opening of a community shares scheme has been one of the things that has given me most personal satisfaction with regards to this scheme. Once we received our planning permission and the licence to extract water from the river, Ynni Ogwen Ltd was established as a Community Benefit Society, lease contracts were agreed with the landowners and lots more work, we were ready to open the community shareholder scheme. This is a form of crowdfunding that gave people an opportunity to invest in the Ynni Ogwen Cyf scheme through buying shares. In the space of two months, a total value of £459,600 of shares had been purchased with 85% of the investors from the locality. This meant that all the costs for building the hydro scheme had been raised without the need to go to a commercial bank for a loan. This is a tremendous amount of money for an area like the Ogwen Valley, and brings me a great sense of pride. More importantly, this meant that Ynni Ogwen was a community scheme in all aspects – local people’s energy had gone into creating the scheme, local people’s money has been used to realise the scheme and local people will benefit from any community profits created. Also, we were able to employ local people along the journey, with contractors from Gwynedd and a project manager from Bethesda. We believe strongly in Ynni Ogwen’s community roots and all the benefits is kept in the Valley is a core value. This is what led us to bring back the Renewables UK Cymru Award for ‘Community Engagement’ to the Ogwen Valley in 2016.
It is a pleasure to share with you that the hydro scheme has now been built and we’re producing clean and sustainable energy in the Ogwen Valley! As well as the hydro energy, the energy of the people involved has been tremendous, and working with the volunteers and the Board has been a real eye opener. Thousands of volunteer hours has gone into developing the scheme. Volunteers also now oversee the scheme’s operation through visiting the site and administrating the scheme.
Since developing the Ynni Ogwen scheme, many more sustainable schemes are being put to work in the Ogwen Valley. To an extent, I see the scheme as a catalyst or snowball that has led to many other exciting projects. For over a year, I’ve been part of the Cyd Ynni – Ynni Lleol pilot, which looks at innovative methods to use hydro electricity locally within communities. This means, not just exporting electricity to all corners of the world, but using it in our communities at a reduced rate. Around 100 local homes in the Ogwen Valley are now part of the scheme which helps locals receive cheaper electricity. Thu hundred households also benefit from efficiency assessments of their homes and community events such as the Energy Efficiency Fair and guided tours of the hydro scheme. The project has also brought people together to discuss sustainability, and that can only be a good thing.
Further afield than the Ogwen Valley, I’m also collaborating with our friends over the mountain in Llanberis and Abergwyngregyn. More often than not, to share grant applications or discuss lobbying, but more recently, to discuss growing communities, graphic novels about community energy, electric cars and much more! The snowball is growing!
A revolution baby
I’m currently on maternity leave, at home with the children and besotted with Eiri Gwyn, a four month old baby full of joy. And that’s why I got involved in all this and continue to contribute to community projects like this. These projects truly aim to create a better future for our children. And that’s the message to anyone reading I suspect – despite the challenges, being part of a community energy scheme is worthwhile on several levels. We’re not an electricity company, we’re a community interest company that’s working sustainably for the benefit of our environment, our people, our children and our future.
I, Meleri Davies, will be explaining more about Ynni Ogwen in a short presentation at the Eisteddfod, explaining more about the challenges and benefits of community energy. Visit our event page for further details about the event ‘Diverting the water/wind to our own mill: local solutions to meet local energy needs’ held at the National Eisteddfod by the Institute of Welsh Affairs in partnership with Bangor University’s Sustainability Lab on Monday the 7th of August 2017. Simultaneous translation will be available.
Notes from the organisers
We are keen to hear from individuals and communities who might be interested in developing their own schemes beforehand. Our hope is that as a result of this event inter-community collaboration and co-creating will be facilitated and enhanced and that new ideas will emerge. To contribute to the discussion you can use social media @planetdotcymru #LocalEnergyWales or contact Einir Young or Gwenith Elias.