23/12/2011

An update before Christmas, going to about 150 people. It has been a busy time since the last update, but there are no big steps forward yet.

The sequence we are following is (1) Environment Agency licence, so that we know the basic specification, especially concerning fish passage, (2) architect's drawings, (3) planning permission. We paid for pre-planning permission advice and it was generally positive, but we need architectural drawings before we can apply for full permission. We have appointed an architect, LAPD in Culham, who did the Dandridges Mill conversion at East Hanney, which includes an Archimedes screw.

The EA is, well, difficult, so we are still at step 1. One thing they want to see is an agreement with the canoe clubs on how we will share the water, so that they can continue to paddle in the waves that the small sluice gates produce. We are happy to do that, but it depends entirely on the lock keeper opening the gates, and that is not part of his job description. So an agreement is meaningless without the EA. But they don't want to get involved, they just want to see an agreement. Oh well, perhaps an agreement will help to prod them into getting involved.

As you may know, the Abbey Stream is silting up, and the fishing there is declining. This is because the previous management of the Upper Reaches reduced the flow, because of the noise coming from the spillway, which you can hear in the restaurant. As a community enterprise it would be good if we could find a way to increase the flow again, as part of this project. There is nothing we can do about it at the top end where the generator is, but there are a few possibilities to explore at the bottom end.

There was a news report that the retiring Cabinet Secretary wants the civil service to be prepared to take more risks, but he accepted that there is “some cultural inertia to overcome”. Not least in the EA. There are different people responsible for different interests – fishing, ecology, hydrology, navigation, etc. We want to use this project to improve our local environment, but there is no trading off of costs and benefits, we have to satisfy all of them before we can have a licence. The fish pass is extra special, it's not enough for the fish man alone to approve it. It has to go on to the Fish Pass Panel to give their verdict, and we pay them £4500 for the privilege. End of rant!  *** Sorry, that figure was a mistake and has been corrected in the next update! ***

The legal structure needs changing to enable us to issue shares, and we will be advised by a legal charity called Carbon Leapfrog, who help community groups. The first meeting with a lawyer was this week. Co-operatives are new territory for him, very different from the big City companies he is used to, but he liked the project and will learn as he goes.

We don't have a complete business plan yet, we still need a few key numbers, but one possibility is a two stage development. If we do not get enough investment for the full system, the first stage could be a single screw. Then when it is up and running we could go for a second round to add two more screws. Because of the way the feed in tariff works at present, the first stage could actually give a higher return than the second stage.

And on the subject of money, we will soon need more, in exchange for the promise of shares in due course. It is risk capital, because if we fail you lose it, although it should be tax deductible. So we decided to offer 10% extra shares, as a thank you and compensation for any loss of interest in the meantime. I'll send another update in the New Year with more information.

You may have seen that the screws at Windsor are being installed at last. They are big. Ours will be smaller but you will be able to get closer. There are pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/environment-agency/sets/72157628485844053

28/10/2011

The last proper update was in July, and progress was rather slow through the summer. Here's where we are now. 

1. Planning permission: the pre-application advice was positive. They said don't bother with outline permission, go for full permission, and they are generally in favour provided we meet their environmental concerns. The main thing we still have to do is architectural drawings. That was held up because we needed information from the Environment Agency on the layout, especially the fish pass. It seems to be fairly definite now, so we will be talking to an architect shortly. The fish pass is so long that the whole thing has to be located a bit further downstream – you may have noticed that it has been shifted in the picture on the home page.

2. Environment Agency licence: there was a delay concerning legal access to the site, but that seems to have been bypassed for now, and the application is on its way through the system. They will have targets for how long it takes to process, and the clock should have started now. Nothing has come back to us after their adverts, inviting comments, so hopefully they have nothing needing an answer. (Later, correction - they did receive objections but did not pass them on to us for comment.)

3. We still need a rental agreement with the Vale. They are in favour of the project, but the bureaucracy is causing them difficulty.

4. Scottish & Southern Electricity decided that our application was not frivolous, so they came without charge. Their advice is that the best connection point would be by the Abbey Centre rather than by the lock keeper's house. So we will have to run a cable underground along the end of Barton Fields instead of across the weir. 

5. Our Carbon Leapfrog project manager has found a source of legal advice that looks suitable for us, but first she wants a business plan. Which is fair enough, as it is about time we put one together anyway. So that is the priority at present, with architectural drawings coming a close second. It is an interim plan, as we do not have all the information yet, but it should be possible to report more detail soon.

You may have seen that BBC local news discovered us while exhibiting in the community shop, and we got 2 minutes of coverage! It is now on the web site (www.abingdonhydro.co.uk). Archimedes screws are getting more attention – the one at Mapledurham is now complete, and two have been delivered to Windsor. The EA is inviting bids for Sandford. Our rationale is shifting – we can now say if we don't do this somebody else will, so it is better for it to be a community enterprise than owned by a more distant company. 

4/7/2011

We had a meeting on Friday, so here&apos;s a report on progress. At last the various approvals seem to be taking shape, instead of looking like hoops that we go on jumping through for ever. Here&apos;s where we are: </p><p>1. Before the planning permission application, we thought it worth paying for pre-application advice, and we have an appointment next week. </p><p>2. A biodiversity/protected species survey is done, and the conclusion is that on balance our project is benign, and the mitigation required is quite straightforward. We still need a bat survey though. </p><p>3. The Environment Agency licence application can go ahead, when we have a document to confirm that we can have access to the land. (What has been done with the EA so far is just the pre-application) </p><p>4. We have started the negotiation to lease the land. </p><p>5. The grid connection is a pain, because the district network operator – in our case Scottish &amp; Southern Electricity - are a monopoly. To give us an estimate of the cost of a connection to the grid, next to the lock keeper&apos;s house, they want £500! (This is a separate matter from who will actually buy the electricity.) </p><p>6. Carbon Leapfrog, the legal charity that has decided to help us, has found a project manager to work with us, and we have had our first conference call with her. She will want to check the management of the project, then will be able to refer us for legal help on the company structure. </p><p>In summary, the various steps seem to be falling into place, and although they will still need plenty of attention, the time is coming to look further ahead and think about the next, more practical steps – specification, design, civil engineering, identifying contractors, getting costs, financial planning, and so on. Further down the line comes the writing of a share prospectus, but we need the other things in place first. </p><p>A comment on the appearance. Although we have found strong support for the project, it is a fair criticism that the picture we are using at present looks very industrial. OK, the weir looks industrial too, but a good architect should be able to make ours look much more attractive. One of our supporters is in the group that wants to revitalise the open air swimming pool, and he has drawn attention to an exhibition in West Waddy&apos;s offices (60 E St Helen St). It shows the results of a competition for Brookes architecture students, to turn it into an attractive lido or spa. It runs till Thursday, 1-4pm. Perhaps their ideas for one end of Abbey Meadow could stimulate some ideas for our project at the other end? If you have views on how the hydro system might look, let us know, and if you have views on the open air pool you can comment on the Abingdon Herald web site.

8/6/2011

Time for an update. We have been rather bogged down in the regulatory stuff, but it helps to look back and see that we are making progress.

The application for outline planning permission is just about ready. We can't go for full planning permission yet, because that needs proper architectural drawings, and we can't produce them until we have more precise technical details. However we are applying for a pre-application consultation, which costs extra, but we hope the extra time it takes will mean less chance of a delay in the application itself. 

Nothing new to report on the Environment Agency licence. Both the EA and the Vale are struggling with budget cuts and reorganisations. The EA wants to simplify its procedures, to cope with rising numbers of applications, but it is not finding it easy because waterways, especially the Thames, have so many interest groups, sometimes in conflict with each other.

We had a pitch at the Dragon Boat Races, which marks a sort of anniversary for the project, because almost our first public outing was at last year's races. This time it was less about publicity and more about public attitudes, and we found people were strongly in favour, with only a few objections. 

Then three of us went to London to give a “Dragon's Den” style presentation to a legal charity called Carbon Leapfrog. They offer pro bono legal help for suitable projects, and they liked ours, so that was very pleasing and a relief. To issue shares we will need a different legal structure, and where to find good advice and how to pay for it was looming up as a real difficulty. First they want a closer look at our business plan, which has been fairly sketchy so we need to do that anyway. 

We have begun to think further ahead though. Ideally we would like a share offer over Christmas and construction in Summer/Autumn 2012. That is quite demanding but it remains the aim. The group at Goring &amp; Streatley are also aiming for 2012, so we will see if we can make any savings by sharing.

Some of you have offered to help in practical ways, and sorry we have been too bogged down in the approvals processes to make much use of the offers yet, but they have been much appreciated. As we move closer to the actual hardware, the need may increase, and for the share offer we will need maximum publicity.

Can I also give advance notice about financing. We are funded by investments that will be converted to shares in due course. As our expenses have been quite low, we have enough so far. We will be needing more before the share offer, but it is difficult to know how much. So at some stage there will probably be a message to invite further investment. This is risk capital, because we cannot guarantee success, but we do not offer any premium, except the satisfaction of helping the project to completion.

Sorry the web site has not been updated for some time – hopefully soon.  

11/5/2011

Time for an update, and a request.

We are moving forward, bit by bit, on many fronts. At a meeting recently I was asked what has to be done for a project like this, so I made a list, which is probably not complete. It may interest you:

Appropriate legal structure
Environment Agency licence
Planning permission
Lease from the landowner (the Vale)
Grid connection
Agreement about taking a cable to the connection point
Power purchasing agreement
Project plan
Business plan, financial plan
Early stage investment
Meeting interested parties (supporters or opponents!)
Communicating with the public 
Building up a contacts/supporters list

When we have all the official bits of paper we need, we will be able to launch a share offer, which will mean another list of tasks! That looks like the point where professional help will be needed.

Concerning the first few items on the list above, next Wednesday we have a "dragon's den" session with a legal charity in London, Carbon Leapfrog, to try to get pro bono help from them. The Environment Agency is struggling with floods of applications and internal reorganisations. The planning permission statements are nearly ready for a pre-application consultation. The Vale is "supportive in principle";. 

Here's the request: we have a pitch at the dragon boat racing next Sunday. The purpose is to make the project more widely known, and build up this list of contacts. (Some of you may date from last year's dragon boats.) In the gazebo we have a model of an Archimedes screw, some activities for children, information sheets, clipboards, and whatever else we can think of. We should aim at having a couple of people at the pitch to talk to visitors. Also someone wandering round with a pile of leaflets and a picture, and asking a simple question and keeping a tally of the answers: the question being, would you support our planning application? Those in favour can be invited to visit the pitch to find out more (and those against thanked politely!) 

Would you be willing to help for an hour or two on Sunday? We have just about enough cover, but it's a case of many hands make light work, and it can be an stimulating time. If so please get in touch - email, or phone 01235 521931.

Thank you

22/3/2011

Stimulated by a couple of meetings, it&apos;s high time I sent out an update on how the hydro project is going (about 120 on the mailing list now), sorry about the delay. First the ongoing tasks, then the meetings:

Environment Agency licence:
Negotiating with the Environment Agency is a rather complicated dance with several departments which are each responsible for looking after their own area of expertise – wildlife, fishing, flooding, navigation, and so on. Each one is in effect a gatekeeper and can find reasons for delaying it. Brendan continues his work on the licence.

Planning permission: 
It has taken some time to get started on planning permission. We will apply for outline permission, because full permission needs detailed drawings and we do not yet have the technical information that will be needed for them. The form is easy enough, it&apos;s all the supplementary information that is more demanding. Then, because it is an unusual project, it will have to go to the County Planning Committee.

Also needed from the Vale is a lease agreement, because they own the land (the Abbey Gardens). The Environment Agency won&apos;t give a licence until they know the landowner has agreed to it.

Legal help: 
A bit of background to this. All over the country, community groups are popping up to try to develop local sources of renewable energy. Two needs in particular are shared by many of them: (1) getting their legal structure right, and (2) early stage finance to do the preliminary work (EA licence and planning permission, for example).

So a group of lawyers got together and formed a charity called Carbon Leapfrog, and obtained sponsorship from companies who know that renewables are the future. Carbon Leapfrog can offer pro bono legal advice for social enterprises that work on greenhouse gas reduction. They are thinking big – which is essential if our present reliance on fossil fuels is to change – and organised a day conference in London on Monday, to which about 300 people came. They see community groups as a vital part of a low carbon future, because it needs a change in culture as well as in legislation and technology.

Our application is in. We will probably need two companies, a cooperative to own the hydro system, and something closer to a charity to distribute the community benefits. There was a lot about finance as well, but it is too early to tell yet if we will need to look beyond Abingdon for our needs.

Hydro power on the Thames: 
Then today (Tuesday) there was a meeting in Henley, for all interested parties in the Thames catchment area. 80 or so people came. The Environment Agency has made progress in simplifying the system and being more positive, and are meanwhile coping with cuts and reorganisation. They came in for some stick from people who are frustrated that the approvals still take so long. The older projects are pushing on and experiencing ups and downs, and more projects are starting. It will be a real encouragement when a generator is actually installed somewhere, and Windsor remains the favourite, with an expectation that it will be installed this year.

Next event: 
We have a stall booked at the dragon boat racing on 15 May - do get in touch if you would like to spend an hour or two helping. Hopefully there will be another update before then.