by Molly Hogg, Low carbon communities project manager

CAfS is proud to have supported Ambleside Action for a Future (AAFAF) for the past two years. Established in late 2018, this local sustainability action group has grown to over 100 members and is committed to reducing the whole town’s carbon footprint to net zero by 2030.

Their outstanding ambition is being backed by South Lakeland District Council (SLDC). They see this as an opportunity to develop a whole-place approach to community decarbonisation that can be expanded across the district and replicated elsewhere.

SLDC engaged CAfS to support AAFAF to shape their community energy project and to introduce carbon footprinting to households and businesses. (See our other article on our new carbon calculators for more information).

But this is by no means the full extent of AAFAF’s activity, which includes community growing and lobbying for a sustainable transport system in the Lake District. Several members are also tireless activists campaigning for policy change and protesting against environmentally damaging proposals. The principles behind the group’s approach are to tackle the problem from all angles and provide opportunities for everyone to get involved and benefit.

I’ve been working with AAFAF since August 2020 and here are three things I’ve learned so far.

  1. There’s more than one way to deliver community energy.

Ambleside is an old town in a conservation area with an attractive roofscape and narrow streets and surrounded by the Lake District fells – beautiful, but not great for wind farms, big ground-mounted solar arrays or district heating.

Within this context, CAfS supported AAFAF to review their options, looking at technologies, sites and delivery models. Together we engaged a Lancaster University student to map the whole town’s roof-top potential for solar photovoltaics (PV).  He found that the combined potential of all roofs could produce up to 60% of Ambleside’s electricity demand. This, alongside the limited potential for other technologies, led us to pursue solar PV.

Initially, we imagined that we would set up a community energy company to deliver the solar PV. However, we learned from community energy veterans that, now that the Feed-in-Tariff subsidy is no longer available, financial viability requires a committed lead organisation with a big roof and high electricity consumption. As Ambleside’s PV potential mostly comes from a high number of smaller roofs, we needed a different approach.

The Big Solar Co-op Pioneer Programme offers one solution. Working across the country to achieve economies of scale and balance risk, this programme plans to fund solar PV installations via a national share offer. Whilst a national approach, they are seeking to involve communities as much as possible, such as having local sustainability groups act as liaison officers with installation sites and community members join the energy company board. We hope to deliver installations on some non-domestic buildings via this route.

A second solution we are pursuing is to set up a domestic solar PV bulk-buying scheme, to maximise the number of individuals investing in renewables for their own property. AAFAF is keen to explore ways of supporting those who are less able to pay as the next step.

In parallel, we need to “power-down” while “powering-up” with renewables. AAFAF has secured funding for a thermal imaging camera and associated training and will be offering free surveys to homeowners to highlight where their homes could be leaking heat. The surveyors will then signpost homeowners to CAfS’ energy team or other professionals to explore these areas further. Finally, we’ll be working with the supply chain to make it easier for homeowners to get the work done.

  1. You need a good strategy for getting the whole town involved.

To succeed in reaching zero carbon, the whole town needs to be involved. So how can that be achieved? We don’t have the all the answers yet, but a strategy is beginning to emerge.

Part of it is awareness raising. We need to make sure that everyone knows what initiatives are happening, why they’re needed and how to get involved. We also need to raise awareness around residents’ and businesses’ individual environmental impacts and how to reduce them – our carbon footprint calculators and carbon reduction advice are aimed at this.

Part is persuading people to act. We need to create a shared vision and sell the co-benefits as much as the environmental ones, as these might have an equal or even greater appeal. Businesses will be keen to hear about cost and reputational benefits that can arise from operating sustainably, and community-focused organisations will be interested in residents’ health and wellbeing.

Part is getting across the message that “your town needs you”. A member of AAFAF very wisely cautioned that we should not come across as too professional otherwise people will be inclined to leave it in our capable hands. The trick is to be organised enough to be effective, whilst maintaining a clear grassroots approach.

The last part is to create multiple opportunities for varying levels of involvement and action to suit different people, so that the call for shared responsibility is not off-putting. Even having people involved to a small extent can create a groundswell that influences others and leads to wider behaviour change.

  1. Be ready to seize funding opportunities.

Delivering the Ambleside to Zero vision involves cost. We need technical support in relation to the energy projects and communication and marketing support to help get the whole town on board and improve our systems so we can sustain the engagement in the longer term.

There are several funding sources around. We’ve applied for a few and have had some successes and some failures – some we’re still waiting to find out about. Deadlines for applications are often short, so you need to be ready to apply when you have your chance. My advice would be to identify what funding you need (or what projects you could deliver if you had funding), research and anticipate opportunities and check eligibility criteria.

As a starting point, the funds we have explored include the Rural Community Energy Fund, the ENW Powering our Communities Fund, Cumbria Community Foundation, MCS Fund, Aviva Community Fund, Cadent Foundation Fund and the Energy Redress Fund.

This new financial year brings very welcome new funding from SLDC which will allow us to start some of this technical and community engagement work. We’ll keep you posted.