Below is the story of how Talybont-on-Usk Energy evolved from a decommissioned turbine house below Talybont Reservoir to having a 100% grant funded, fully operational, community owned hydro scheme. It took 5 years of hard effort, enthusiasm and commitment by the early pioneers involved and the story here is related by one of them…..
It all started in the summer of 2001 with a shred of a bright idea in a team meeting in Machynlleth. If we’d known at the start that it would be more than four years of learning and graft before we could generate a spark of energy, we might have stopped right there. But probably not – we were a maverick and indomitable lot from the start.
The Welsh Government had kicked it all off really, with the introduction of the Sustainable Development Fund (SDF) grant programme in National Parks and AONBs across Wales. With sustainable development as the ‘central organising principle’ of the Assembly Government, and a duty to promote it enshrined in the Government of Wales Act, the idea behind the SDF was to show people what sustainable development looked like when it happened.
The three National Park Authorities Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire Coast) and their dedicated programme Officers had been administering and promoting the SDF programme for over a year, when a review session between the SDF Officers at the offices of renewable energy company Dulas Ltd sparked an interesting proposal. As well as supporting individual projects in each National Park – couldn’t we explore the idea of having a shared theme, taken forward in different ways in each area? I’m sure that actually being in the Dulas offices made us think immediately of community energy – what better example of sustainable development could there be than communities generating both energy and income locally, for the benefit of local people?
We could each think of communities who might be interested in at least considering the proposal, so although we felt a bit uncomfortable that it would be us, and not the communities themselves getting things going (a bit top down), we were keen to see where this would take us. I knew that there might be interest in Talybont-on-Usk – Nick Willson at the far end of the valley (no electricity still up there – the grid hasn’t made it that far even now) had already been in touch about a possible local hydro scheme – so I knew there’d be at least one person to talk to! I also knew that Peter Seaman, the enthusiastic and dynamic Community Council Clerk, would be supportive. And my heart was there – I’d fallen for a local resident and was spending a lot of time In Talybont – and it’s always good to have an excuse to spend pondering and getting inspired in the Star.
The initial brief supported by the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority was:
“to support the development of renewable energy developments at community level. Projects will maximise support and promote understanding of the importance of renewable energy in assisting the local economy and the local and global environment. The work will realise community ambitions for renewable energy development and increase the capacity within individual communities for determination and action. It will also explore renewable energy technologies appropriate to areas of high conservation value, and will look at associated development restrictions.”
So we took the plunge and organised a public meeting in Henderson Hall in December 2001. We didn’t know how many people to expect, but more than 30 local people turned up and thought that the proposal was well worth supporting – so off we went! Dulas were engaged by each National Park Authority to undertake initially feasibility studies and development work, alongside local experts, Mid Wales Energy Agency (sadly now gone). This was funded by an initial SDF grant of £7,822, and the SDF Officer for Brecon Beacons National Park took on a co-ordinating role as part of her work.
With the full backing of the Community Council, a series of public meetings followed throughout 2002. Lots of different people from the village joined in along the way, with a hard-core group of skilled stalwarts emerging, bringing business and engineering expertise between them. It was agreed at an early stage that any project would be developed and managed as a community owned business, and that we’d seek any capital funding from grant sources, rather than asking local people to invest. We wanted all local people to feel that they owned whatever was developed, not just those with money to invest.
At that point, we didn’t really have any clear views on what our energy source might be – clearly wind would create planning concern in a National Park, though we were surrounded by Forestry Commission managed woodlands, so wood-fuel looked promising. Then, at one meeting with flip charts and post-its galore, we were lucky enough to have a retired worker from Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water, who casually mentioned that there used to be a hydro turbine up at the reservoir, powering the water treatment works. We duly noted this and moved on – wish we’d kept those flip chart sheets!
Then, during one of Dulas’s exploratory visits to the village, we had one of those amazing, dreamlike days where everything came together. Working out way through the suggestions people had made, we rocked up to the water treatment works and asked if we could talk about the old hydro scheme. An old key was found, and we walked across the grass to the 1930s stone built turbine house and the door creaked open. There it was – a turbine house waiting for a turbine. Ta da! How lucky were we? How many communities have access to a reservoir and a ready-made turbine house?
Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water own the reservoir and dam, so have been crucial partners from the start. We first met senior staff in mid-January 2003, and were encouraged by their positive support – their approach was ‘how can we make this work within our statutory duties as a water undertaker?’ We agreed to keep Environment Agency Wales fully informed as plans developed – we knew that the ‘compensation flow’ to keep the river Caerfanell in good ecological condition could not be compromised at any time and would always take priority. Dwr Cymru staff were not fazed by our proposal for a 15 year lease on the turbine house.
Dulas sketched out what a hydro scheme might look like, and how much it might cost us. We reckoned we could have a useful installation for about £72k (it cost us closer to £92k), generating about £11k a year (we’ve been lucky enough to receive a lot more than that so far) – so off we went.
Again, we were lucky enough in July 2003 to secure a Spirit Fund grant from Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations to employ a skilled part-time development worker, John Lambert – and on we went! Over the next couple of years we registered as a Company Limited by Guarantee, made lots of funding applications and raised enough money to commission a turbine, successfully gained Planning Consent to put a turbine back in the turbine house, held numerous community events.
June 2004 – Completion of Welsh Development Agency (WDA)/Mid Wales Energy Agency funded detailed Design and Implementation Study for the hydro-electric turbine. Fundraising kicked off by a capital grant of £14.4k from BBNP’s SDF.
October 2004 – Grant of £5k secured from Awards for All.
December 2004 – Capital grants secured from Clearskies (£44.9k) and Powys SECRET – a community renewable energy ERDF Objective 2 fund managed by Mid Wales Energy Agency (£27.6k).
All funding now in place. Lease of turbine house signed with Dwr Cymru.
January 2005 – Turbine ordered.
November 2005 – Turbine installed and commissioned.
January 2006 – Sales contract signed with energy supplier Good Energy.
April 2006 – Turbine formally launched and switched on by First Minister Rhodri Morgan AM live on evening ITV news.