'Off grid' homes harness river to power whole village

Helena Horton
·3 min read
Saskya Huggins (R) and Ruth Finar, who are both Volunteer Directors of the Osney Lock Hydro - John Lawrence 
Saskya Huggins (R) and Ruth Finar, who are both Volunteer Directors of the Osney Lock Hydro - John Lawrence

When a small community just west of Oxford watched as the Thames destroyed their houses in a dramatic flood, they realised just how powerful the river was.

Now, they have harnessed that force and protected their homes by using their little stretch for hydroelectric renewable energy.

The people of Osney Lock are just one of the communities which hope to be the first to go truly "off grid" under plans to allow local people to buy renewable energy which is generated nearby.

At the moment, when a community buys a group of solar panels, or starts a hydroelectric dam, they are forced to sell the energy back to the grid.

Under a new proposed Local Energy Bill, neighbourhoods could club together to become their own energy suppliers, breaking free from the big utility companies and creating green, cheap energy.

Ministers heartily support the plans, with one telling The Sunday Telegraph: "These ideas bring out the Conservative in me. The government should send the signal, create incentives and remove red tape - this then lets 1,000 flowers bloom."

The floods of 2007 inspired the people of Osney Lock to harness the river's power for good - EDMOND TERAKOPIAN/AFP/Getty Images
The floods of 2007 inspired the people of Osney Lock to harness the river's power for good - EDMOND TERAKOPIAN/AFP/Getty Images

It is understood Alok Sharma, the President of the global climate conference COP26, due to be held in Glasgow later this year, is supportive of the plans as an incentive to quickly reduce Britain's carbon footprint using community spirit.

The Osney Lock Project currently produces enough electricity to power 55 houses a year, and this number could increase.

Saskya Huggins from Low Carbon Hub, who works on the project, explained: "From our perspective the bill is important on two levels - our role in community energy is that if we were able to sell the power locally we would really increase community participation in our project. The frustration is we cannot sell the thing we make back to the local community. People who want to support us can't directly buy energy off us."

That part of the river has been used to power Oxford for centuries, with the city's first watermills stationed there. Locals wild swim and go boating near the dam, and hope the clean energy it produces can soon be sent directly to their homes.

Welsh organisers hope to use the mountains of Snowdonia to power local towns and villages without having to rely on the grid.

The dam at Osney Lock - John Lawrence 
The dam at Osney Lock - John Lawrence

Gareth Harrison runs a network of hydro dams and solar panels around the mountain range. He said: "We have nearly 0.5MW of generating capacity, and want to be able to sell this electricity directly to consumers. As community-focused organisations, all of our profits are re-invested back into community projects - we've just help set-up new charities that will distribute these funds. The Bill will help our groups develop more renewables to help tackle climate change, whilst also allowing us to generate a sustainable revenue stream to continue supporting our communities."

Police stations are also trying to help their communities generate local energy. Officers at South Yorkshire Police got solar panels installed on the roof of their station.

Luke Wilson, director of Sheffield Renewables, has been working with them on the project. He said: "The complexity and costs of energy supply means that small, local energy suppliers are blocked from supplying local produced electricity to local users. Most electricity users are forced to go to the big energy companies and any resulting profit is not kept in the local area.

"The Local Electricity Bill would give small community electricity generators like ourselves the right to become local suppliers and sell our energy directly to local people. This Bill would open up new opportunities for Sheffield Renewables and our partners, allowing us progress more renewable co-operatively owned energy projects, generate and supply clean 'Made in Sheffield' electricity, reduce carbon emissions, make our communities more sustainable, and keep money in the city's economy, reinvesting in further environmental and social projects. It's a no brainer."