Neil Clapperton: How our Housing Association is responding to Climate Emergency in the oil capital of Europe

Ben Wray

Contributing to our week of special coverage on Climate Emergency, Neil Clapperton, CEO of Grampian Housing Association, explains what they are doing to reduce the price of electricity for households, and why it could be a model to follow for the whole of the North-East of Scotland

COMMONSPACE’s climate change theme is targets (and rhetoric) to action, and I’d like to use this space to be a bit provocative, especially as I work in the self-styled oil capital of Europe.  

Extinction rebelliousness should shame all those of a progressive nature into taking some risks, and for civic leadership to step up and do something to respond to the climate emergency.  After all it is our communities, tenants and clients that will bear the brunt of chaotic weather and a battered economy.

Setting targets to reduce CO2 emissions and other climate change gases is the first step, and the Scottish Government is making a laudable commitment, but policy gets confused when it comes to fuel poverty. 

The energy efficiency assessment of housing rewards mains gas, rightly, because it is the cheapest option for those on low incomes.  Social landlords work hard to insulate and change behaviours to reduce demand, but Scottish Government policy is based on a perverse incentive that forces housing associations like Grampian to rely heavily on a fossil fuel pollutant.  So where is the magic bullet when it comes to simultaneously protecting the planet and quality of life for those on low incomes?

READ MORE: Ian McCall: The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland and Climate Emergency

A lot has been said about hydrogen and district heating, but both have their technical and financial flaws. I truly believe that the old villain of the piece, electricity, is about to make a comeback. 

About 450 of our homes in the North East have PV on their roofs, but much of the electricity just goes to the grid.  With the help from the Decarbonisation Fund, we are installing Tesla 2 Powerwall batteries in 50 properties.   Our partner, Solo Energy’s ability to act as a Virtual Power Plant (VPP) using these batteries and smart analytics to buy and sell energy changes everything.  Using a “time of use” tariff and a smart meter alongside the batteries, we can store photovoltaic energy where it is installed, but also purchase cheap, renewable energy from the grid and store this for tenant use.  Using artificial intelligence it can work the market, selling a portion of the power at peak times to generate an income for both Solo and GHA. 

The arithmetic is compelling: a kilowatt hour is 3p to buy at 3am and worth 20p at 6pm.  We hope to take the price of electricity as low as possible, but could it be zero?  Certainly tenants needn’t pay high tariffs again, potentially reducing their electric bills by two thirds to a level equivalent to gas.  

READ MORE: From rhetoric to reality: How do we make a Scottish Green Deal happen?

The batteries are compatible with other storage systems like Lothian start-up Sunamp’s thermal store, and with a variety of heating sources like electric storage, infra-red heating and Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHPs) to name four greener technologies.  This is the opportunity to end gas for domestic and office heating.  Could it also turn housing associations and council housing departments into massive demand and generation aggregation systems, providing the solution to intermittent generation from our world class supplies of renewable energy?  

There are so many wins in this scenario, for social housing, for the fuel poor, for rural areas, for the planet, that I dare not dream.  One loser is going to be the fossil fuel energy business and with it Aberdeen, unless it grasps the opportunity to lead.

Picture courtesy of Tai Viinikka

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