A community powered by its own renewable energy
You have probably not heard of Güssing - a small community in eastern Austria near the Hungarian border. It is a town of 4000 people in what was, in 1988, one of the poorest regions in the country. It relied on agriculture and unemployment was high - over 60%. 70% who did have work commuted to Vienna, 100 miles away.
It's fossil fuel bill as a community was £5m pa and was hardly affordable. Local leaders realised that if they could produce their own energy, the £5M that public authorities and householders spent would stay in the local economy and would help lift living standards.
The first step as you would expect was to reduce energy use. In 1990, the town implemented an energy efficiency program, insulating public buildings, replacing street lightbulbs, etc. Energy use by authorities was reduced by almost 50 percent.
The second step was to adopt a policy of no use of fossil-fuel energy in all public buildings.
There is not a lot of wind in Güssing, but biomass is abundant—the town is surrounded by 328 acres of forest. Some local residents, realising that wood on the forest floor was not being used, had started to run a small district heating station for six homes. [District heating is a system for distributing heat generated in a centralized location for residential and commercial heating requirements - some supply whole cities, some just a block of flats, so plant size and cost varies considerably.] With the success of that project, more small district heating systems were built. The mayor, who was looking for a way to revitalize the town, took notice. In 1996, the heating system was expanded to the whole town and was also generating electricity, all from renewable raw materials gathered from within a 3 mile radius through sustainable forestry practices.
Then, in 2001, with the help of the federal government, Güssing installed a biomass gasification plant, that runs off of wood chips from wood thinned from the forest and waste wood from a wooden flooring company. The plant makes a form of natural gas which fuels the city’s power plant. It produces on average 2 megawatts of electricity and 4.5 megawatts of heat, more than enough energy for the town’s needs, while only consuming one-third of the biomass that grows every year.
In 2007, Güssing was the first community in the European Union to cut carbon emissions by more than 90 percent, helping it attract a steady stream of scientists, politicians, and eco-tourists. One year later, Güssing built a research institute focusing on thermal and biological gasification and production of second-generation fuels. That same year a solar manufacturer started producing PV modules in Güssing, producing 850 megawatts of modules a year and employing 140 people. Several other photovoltaic and solar thermal companies have relocated to Güssing, installing new demonstration facilities in the district.
The little town has become a net energy producer—generating more energy from renewables than it uses. Altogether, there are more than 30 power plants using renewable energy technologies within 6 miles of the village.
The town now has 60 new companies, 1,500 new jobs, and annual revenues of £12M due to energy sales, all resulting from the growth of the renewable energy sector. The downtown has been rebuilt and young people picture themselves staying there in the future. And other areas are following Gussing’s lead. More than 15 regions in Austria are now energy independent with regard to electricity, heating, and/or transportation.
Could your community adopt a policy of no use of fossil-fuel energy?
Could all or parts of the community create their own small renewable energy plant(s) and deliver the gas and electricity into the national grid (district heating requires pipelaying and infrastructure changes so costs a lot more) thus keeping money in the community rather than give it to the Big 6 energy companies? This might really help rural communities. If you think of a town with 2000 homes who pay an average of £1200pa for energy, that's £2.4M pa. Add in businesses and authorities, this could easily be £3M-£4M potential income to a community trust company.
While you are about it, take a look at Bulb - they generate energy from hydro and a biomass plant and may be in a position to advise on local plants. They are committed to supporting independent renewable generators with an installed capacity greater than 100kW. Another is Good Energy with the same model. (Other energy companies are available).
There is more information re biomass plant and business planning on the Carbon Trust site here and the Renewable Energy Association here.
Biomass energy accounts for around 85 per cent of the UK's renewable energy supply. Biomass refers to organic materials, such as wood, straw and energy crops, which can be used to generate electricity, heat and motive power. The energy is released by burning and fermentation. The payback period for biomass systems is generally five to 12 years, though this can be significantly shorter if free waste wood is available.
Anaerobic digestion is another method of converting biomass into energy. In this process, organic material is broken down by bacteria, in the absence of oxygen, to create methane-rich biogas. This can then be burned to generate heat and electricity. The solid waste from the process is called digestate and can be used in a similar way to compost. The payback periods for anaerobic digestion plants vary widely, but could be between five and ten years.
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Geoff Knott, 06/06/2017