Interview with Lesley Bennett, Chair of WWCE

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Lesley Bennett is the director of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy (WWCE), a very successful community energy organisation and a member of Mongoose Energy. You might recognise Lesley because she let us use a picture of her for our ‘Your Green Energy SOS‘ campaign that finalised very successfully yesterday. Read on to learn more about her, the community energy group she leads, as well as her opinions on the government’s regulatory changes affecting community energy.

Hi Lesley, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Our family has lived in Wiltshire for the last 40 years or so. Our 6 children have grown up and dispersed,  though 3 of them, and 3 grandchildren live locally.  I was very active in local politics for years, was the first woman Mayor of Malmesbury and served on Town, District and County Councils. Gradually I became more interested in practical measures to improve our lives rather than in the world of politics. I  became a customer non exec director on the board of Wessex Water and was a non exec director of the Great Western Hospital in Swindon and a Trustee of Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. I’m mostly retired now except for working with WWCE.

What motivated you to get involved in Community Energy? 

Over the years I learned more about the potential that climate change has to create huge damage in our society as well as the wider environment. It seemed to me really important to do all we can to reduce carbon use and that and create a more sustainable world. Energy use is a fundamental human need and community energy is the cleanest, calmest way to produce it.

WWCE has been very successful up until now, having funded and built two large community projects, the Chelworth and Braydon Manor solar arrays. What were the biggest difficulties you faced when trying to get the projects up and running?

WWCE started out as an idea from the Wilshire Wildlife Trust who saw it as the logical extension to promoting sustainability.  The Trust had a core of members who shared the ideals and could help raise the money, but lacked the expertise to put together the complicated project which is a solar farm. Fortunately, we had friends who were involved with BWCE and they were able to help us through the complexities of setting up a bencom as well as negotiating about the legal and technical processes involved with creating a solar farm.

What does split ownership for community solar farms mean and how does it help to advance the community energy agenda going forward? 

The spilt ownership means we can maximize the amount of energy produced while saving on our core costs for the community energy we own and generate. 

The government’s regulatory changes affecting the feed in tariff scheme and social investment tax relief have come under fire from the Community Energy sector; what’s your analysis of these changes and what kind of policies would you like to see? 

It seems to me that the government has completely lost sight of the important objective of creating renewable energy.  It has been influenced by the noisy windmill haters (I mean noisy protestors, not noisy windmills!). Ed Milliband proposed bringing down power prices if he had won the election and now George Osborne and the conservatives are boasting about removing subsidies for clean energy as a way to cut household bills. But the green energy subsidy is very small while the profits made by the big six energy companies are considerable and the subsidies for gas and nuclear are enormous. It’s not a coherent strategy

The subsidies worked -they encouraged the development of solar and wind industries and there was a proliferation of new green energy schemes. Every year the technology improves -we are now on the brink of getting efficient batteries-  the final link to be able to create a totally viable and local energy supply. Very soon we wouldn’t need artificial support anyway. To remove support at this moment is to trip us up before we can run.

I don’t understand why the government doesn’t see the virtues in supporting clean, locally sourced energy.  Instead it has done a deal with China to build huge Nuclear Power stations with a guaranteed price for electricity which is far greater that anything ever suggested for green energy.

If I wanted to start my own, local community energy group what’s the first thing I should do?

First of all gather people around you who have the same objectives.  If possible, identify some suitable land. If it’s for a solar farm it should be poor quality agricultural land which can be improved by a beneficial ecological management plan. There’s no possibility of wind right now (ignore the fact that the wind is howling in the eaves as I write -our government made it clear that no new onshore wind turbines will be permitted). Then go and talk to experts like Mongoose who have the technical knowledge of everything from design to managing share offers.  They will be able to act as your agents throughout the project. 

What is your vision for the energy future?

I look forward to a time when every community produces its own energy, either from water, wind, solar or by using its waste.  All houses will be efficient and insulated, we will have electric cars. Every town have large battery units -much like water towers, which guarantee the day round energy we need. We will not be dependent on foreign oil, will not be polluting our atmosphere by burning coal or damaging our environment by digging for gas.  I think there is a place for nuclear energy for large infrastructure security -perhaps like running railways and steelworks- but essentially energy will be a local concern created and used by its own communities.

Lesley Bennett, chair of the Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy at the Chelworth Solar array

Lesley Bennett, chair of the Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy at the Chelworth Solar array. Photo credits: © Andrew Aitchison / 10:10