Welcome to the latest series of guest blogs as part of our Everyone’s Exeter campaign, focusing on one of the 12 Goals each month over the next year. We will be hearing from business leaders on the impact that the featured goal of the month will have on their business and what their organisations are already doing to tackle the goal.
We are joined this month, for the Renewable Energy Access for Everyone goal, by Sonya Bedford, the Head of the Renewable Energy team at Stephens Scown.
My name’s Sonya Bedford, I’m a partner at Stephens Scown Solicitors and I head up the Renewable Energy team here in Exeter, where I’ve been working for the last nine years. I also went to Exeter University to do my Legal Practice Course, about 20 years ago, so I’ve got a great connection with this city.
Our day to day legal work, as The Renewable Energy team, is around ensuring that green energy projects get off the ground, and facilitating a diverse range of renewable energy contracts across Exeter and beyond.
My goal is to help Exeter achieve its goal of becoming a zero-carbon city. Through my roles at Stephens Scown, Exeter Community Energy and Regen I am able to use my passion to help deliver community and renewable energy projects across the city and contribute towards this ambition. Going forward I want to see more rooftops covered in solar, more community owned energy projects across the city and for Exeter to be seen as a leader in green energy innovation.
Exeter’s Renewable Energy Future
As a worker in Exeter I am invested in Exeter’s sustainable future, so I am passionate about Exeter City Futures’ ‘Renewable Energy Access for Everyone’ goal. I have always believed that we should move away from fossil fuel consumption and move towards 100% renewable energy. The fact that I can facilitate this through my work is extremely rewarding.
When the government’s Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) scheme was introduced 10 years ago – a subsidy introduced for small-scale renewable energy projects, designed to encourage the uptake of renewable energy on a smaller scale – it was a huge success and rapidly increased the rate and scale at which renewables were being deployed – nationwide.
We’ve had so much progress in the last decade that it would have been completely inconceivable back then that we could have coal-free weeks, like we did this month, here in the UK!
Last month however was a an unfortunate landmark, because the 1st of April 2019 marked the closure of the Feed-In Tariff scheme and the last renewable energy subsidy that was available in the UK.
This highlights a point in time where renewable energy access for everyone is now being made a lot more challenging to realise, because there’s now no form of energy subsidy available to small scale renewable projects. Meaning that now, if someone in Exeter was seeking to put renewable energy on their commercial building, home or on some land, this project will have to stand on its own two feet without any subsidy at all.
It’s a shame these energy tariffs are disappearing as it means that renewable energy now becomes one of the only unsubsidised sources of energy generation in the country… whereas the fossil fuel industry is subsidised.
This makes the business models for renewable energy projects a bit more difficult and will likely result in a little less deployment of renewable energy than there has been in the last decade. We just have to look at things in a different way now.
Aside from being bitter and twisted about this, the costs of particularly solar installations have come down significantly; so we just have to be a bit more clever about how make these renewable energy projects happen.
It’s also more than just about generating electricity, which will become more evident as we move into a new era of subsidy-free renewable energy, it’s about energy consumption. It’s about bringing communities together and deciding what best suits your own personal, community or business energy use.
Zero Carbon Agenda
One of the engagement activities that I led at Stephen Scown was on Valentine’s Day 2017 when the Renewables Team created a giant heart out of pinwheels near our office on Southernhay, all to highlight onshore wind, as one of the most effective forms of renewable energy generation. It was a hideously cold, windy and rainy day, but it was something to highlight the fact that we still need more renewable energy and we need more people to engage and understand where their energy is coming from, and anyway we can do that is positive in my eyes. It is important that the UK continues on its path to decarbonising the energy system and wind, as the lowest cost energy resource, plays a strong role in this. It’s not just about selling a legal service, it’s about making renewables mainstream. The day when it’s not called alternative energy is the day that our job is done!
Stephens Scown has one office in Exeter and two offices in Cornwall with over 300 members of staff. Although we would like to, we were unable to install renewable energy on the rooftops of our offices in Southernhay as it is a conservation area and because we don’t own our building. Instead, we chose to invest in and support community energy projects and other renewable energy projects as well as working with our staff to employ other energy saving methods company-wide. As part of the renewables team I’m looking at getting approval for a solar powered electric vehicle charger, for the office – which would be super exciting. Stephens Scown also continue to assist our clients to realise their ambitions in building wind, solar, anaerobic digestion and hydro generation sites.
As part of my role at Stephens Scown I am delivering the Zero Carbon Project, a series of Facebook Live broadcasts discussing how the law firm and their clients can progress on a journey to a zero carbon Britain; exploring five key themes: energy, housing, transport, food and wellbeing. The aim was to assist our clients to reach zero carbon status and become positive contributors, not just carbon emitters. It also highlighted and celebrated those clients and businesses who are putting this ethos into good practice already, for example Shillingford Organics’ rooftop solar.
We’ve got a collection of sustainability focused initiatives within Stephen Scown. We use a zero-to-landfill waste collection, our firm charity is Surfers Against Sewage so we do beach cleans, all our staff are provided with reusable coffee mugs / water bottles, we use environmentally-friendly caterers and long term we aim to be a plastic-free office. We’ve got a very energy-efficient air-conditioning system, we carried out staff transport survey and encourage car sharing… the list goes on! At the moment we have a pool car, which isn’t electric but this is switching to an electric vehicle and providing a solar powered electric vehicle charging point at the office would be the next step.
One of the things that I’m involved with voluntarily, is that I’m a director of Exeter Community Energy (ECoE), which aims to help set up more renewable energy projects in Exeter and work towards a city that is less reliant on fossil fuels. The organisation came about seven years ago after looking at the Trews Weir Hydro Project on the River Exe. (We revisited this hydro project again in 2017, and Exeter City Council were supportive but unfortunately again it didn’t happen due to other reasons.) To date (ECoE) has deployed nine solar installations across the City of Exeter, and is looking to facilitate a lot more in the next few years. This is a great example of how my legal work and voluntary roles combine brilliantly to help make these projects happen
ECoE have also developed a Community Fund from the revenue generated from their Solar PV1 and Solar PV 2 projects in order to give back to Exeter and the communities of Exeter through additional grant funding.
ECoE’s nine solar power installations have generated over 750MWh to date and saved over 293 tonnes of carbon. Over the projects’ 20 years lifespan, they expect to make over £170,000 available to the Community Fund, which is available for local community groups to apply for funding for projects that help to save energy and/or help to alleviate fuel poverty.
So far ECoE have sponsored a couple of green energy projects within the city which is fantastic. For example in 2017-18 the Music in Devon Initiative launched their solar-powered PA via funding from ECoE’s Community Fund, which as well as displacing fossil-fuel-powered energy allows them to perform in off-grid locations. This shows how community ownership of renewables really helps people to get more interested and engaged with it because you can invest in it, volunteer with a group or make new and exciting projects happen as a result.
I think that the only way that the average person connects with energy, is through their energy bills, and renewable energy has had a fairly bad press about all the subsidies that are included in people’s energy bills. In reality though these costs aren’t as significant as some publications report. This is a key piece of education that we need. Enabling people to connect with and understand energy and their consumption of it in unique ways – like the interactive solar energy workshops that Art & Energy are doing with communities for example – means they’re more likely to support renewable energy and recognise that switching to green energy suppliers or renewable energy tariffs, are now on a par with regular ‘brown’ tariffs. I think it’s a myth now that renewable energy is more expensive. Switching is easy and are now very comparable.
I am also a Non-Executive Director of Regen – a not-for-profit centre of energy expertise – and Regen recently created low carbon energy system vision for Swansea, and there’s a publicly available report on how they propose to get there. It was very encouraging to see Exeter’s declaration to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and this is huge step in the right direction and in tackling Exeter City Futures’ ‘Renewable Energy Access for Everyone’ goal. There’s different theories on how you get a city or a place to zero carbon, and obviously it depends on what your natural resources are, how much energy you use and where you’re starting from; so I look forward to seeing the plans that Exeter City Council, Exeter City Futures and its community interest company board put forward to make this happen here in Exeter!
Exeter is a thriving city, but it isn’t immune to the effects of climate change. The city needs to build up its resources to ensure that it is future-proof but also to make it an amazing place to live and work.
The general consensus is that we don’t need to invent anything new to make it easier for Exeter to become a zero-carbon city. There’s nothing that we don’t already have or resource that doesn’t already exist to achieve that, which means it’s doable tomorrow if we threw everything at it – you just need political will, money and all the different parties and partners involved.
Some of the benefits to solving Exeter’s 12 Goals are obvious, like cleaner air and resilient transport, but the intangible benefits around increasing renewable energy generation within the city and looking at smart energy and affordable, fuel-efficient housing would really help to create a city that is a better place to live, that’s less reliant on fossil fuels, but that also considers those individuals that can’t afford to physically deploy a renewable energy themselves.
At Stephens Scown there is an employee ownership scheme, so everyone feels engaged in how the business operates and its vision. I think there’s a lot to be said about making sustainable goals a part of your business ethos because then even the smallest positive steps could make a big impact on your companies carbon footprint, even if it’s a small thing like encouraging all staff to turn off their computers and monitors overnight. Similarly, with Exeter City Futures 12 Goals, they also create joint city ownership of the challenges we face together, things that should be important for all of our businesses.
I think as a business within Exeter, if you’re not engaging with the 12 Goals for Exeter then your business isn’t necessarily going to thrive going forward. Whatever your business goals are, whether it’s saving money, energy or creating a workforce that’s engaged and happy, I think businesses are going to have to get involved with these 12 Goals and the sooner the better. If we all work together alongside these shared goals, we can achieve so much more than if we just work in our own bubbles.