Green and pleasant land: How the National Trust is making sustainability beautiful

In 1895, the National Trust was established to preserve Britain's heritage and open spaces. More than 120 years later, these areas need protecting from an even greater threat. The iron claws of urbanisation and the industrial revolution have slowly receded, replaced by the icy fangs of climate change.

Penrhyn castle in Wales - one of a number of National Trust properties that have ditched fossil fuels to become energy self-sufficient

Penrhyn castle in Wales - one of a number of National Trust properties that have ditched fossil fuels to become energy self-sufficient

For the Trust, years of dormant global climate action hasn’t just put its resources at threat, it has made mitigation and adaptation a complex hurdle to navigate.

By combatting climate change through emissions reductions, the National Trust is sticking to that same mantra of conservation that it was established under back in 1895. And, over time, renewable energy has become the perfect tool for the charity to do so.

More than 40% of the National Trust's owned buildings are open 365 days a year and, as the organisation's director-general Dame Helen Ghosh is fully aware, keeping the mansion lights on in the winter certainly isn’t cheap.

“We’ve tried to strike a balance between the longer opening times and increased visitors with reducing our energy consumption,” Ghosh tells edie. “The best way to do so is to invest in smart and renewable technology that allows us to produce energy and monitor it day by day.”

Beauty & the beast

But here's the dilemma: whether draped across the pointed arches and vaulted ceilings of the gothic Tyntesfield site, among the exotic plants in Trelissick’s garden, or attached to the Downton Abbey-esque mansion at the Wimpole Estate, it is hard to view renewable technology as anything other than foreign on a National Trust property.

The aesthetics – or lack thereof – of renewable energy technology such as solar photovoltaics and wind turbines stifles their inability to mesh seamlessly with an otherwise picturesque environment. It’s a modern-day beauty and the beast dilemma.

Blending solar arrays with the Notre Dame cathedral would seem unthinkable. It’s equally unsatisfying imaging an anaerobic digester swelling from the tulip fields of the Netherlands, like an inappropriate Teletubby-style hill.

A case in point: the Jurassic coast in Dorset - deemed an 'area of outstanding natural beauty' - has just breathed a sigh of relief at the decision to axe plans for Navitus Bay Wind Park.

Hidden hydro 

But the National Trust has the solutions to innocuously integrating modern renewable technology into and onto its sites. Careful placement and framing has, in some instances, created ‘invisible sources’ of low-carbon energy on some sites. And on others, on-site sustainability solutions are being used as an additional attraction - laying out solar panels as 'modern art' at a property in North Wales, for example. 

“By definition, we would never think of adding projects if we didn’t believe that it was appropriate for an individual piece of landscape and that we didn’t think that aesthetically it would damage the landscape that we are looking after.” Ghosh says.

“Our hydro schemes - like the one in Snowdonia [pictured below] - are the largest and most successful renewable projects we own. It more or less looks like a waterfall on the landscape. I’m convinced that people would walk up there and not notice that it was a hydro scheme.

“The same would be true of solar installations. We’d probably be more cautious about solar installations because in some ways they are more intrusive. But where we have installed them, we’ve had very little negative response.”

The National Trust has installed similar ‘invisible’ panels at Nunnington in Yorkshire, reducing energy usage at the site by 80%. By 2020, Ghosh predicts that the combination of offset and exported energy to the grid through hydro and solar schemes will save 12.6kW/h from energy-generating activities.

Ghosh admits that some wind turbine installations have been met with ‘opposition and resistance’, but where the intrusive nature of some resources create dead-ends, the ‘low-key’ aspects of others provides great energy-saving potential.

New era 

Deep into the countryside, a lot of the Trust’s portfolio has had to rely on oil as the primary energy source. But the growth in renewable sources and infrastructure has changed this mix.

Plas Newydd in the Menai Strait in North Wales [pictured below] is powered by Britain’s biggest marine-source heat pump. The 300kW pump reduced running costs at what used to be the Trust’s most oil-hungry site by £40,000 a year.

The Plas Newydd property used to consume 128,000 Litres of oil annually, resulting in 217 tonnes of carbon emissions. Now, sources 100% of its energy from the heat pump, equalling an 80% reduction in CO2.

Meanwhile, Croft Castle in Herefordshire has been retrofitted with a biomass boiler. More than 19,500 litres of oil was used annually at the castle each year – equally 52 tonnes of carbon. The boiler uses excess woodland from the estate as fuel and has cut energy bills by £6,000 a year.

Another example: Upton House in Warwickshire was once powered by 25,000 litres of oil every year. Now it is fuelled by two wood-pellet boilers, saving £6,000 a year on energy bills and 55 tonnes of carbon emissions. The house was bestowed to the Trust more than 60 years ago by former Shell chairman Lord Bearsted - an irony that perfectly represents the end of the fossil fuel era and the renewables revolution that lies ahead.

Tangible targets

The National Trust's sustainability shift has been set in stone through two clear CSR targets it set itself back in 2010 - to produce 50% of energy from renewables and to reduce energy consumption by 20% by 2020, against a 2009 baseline.

Ghosh played an important role in setting these 2020 goals and, over the past 10 years, the charity has spent more than £1bn on conservation projects aimed at reaching them. Through projects like those set out above, Ghosh remains confident of hitting the target for renewables. But the more concerning target, she says, is energy efficiency. 

“Our renewable programme is in place to save us money and help with CO2 emissions," Ghosh adds. "But it is also in place to show that you can develop renewable solutions that work with the landscape.

"We’ve had to adapt to the rather peculiar buildings that we have, but the renewable energy programme is well on track for the 50% target. We’ve been cast down and pushed back at times by Government policy in terms of renewables support and we’ll certainly be lobbying against further changes.

“Our energy efficiency target is what we are much more worried about. We suspect that if we are to achieve the target – which I am absolutely determined to do so - we will have to invest into higher tech and push the bounds of behaviour change as far as we can.

“This year, we are at 9% below our 2009 target. So we’ve still got another 11% to do and this is where we really will need to think about investment into smart technologies, which may not even be available right now.”

Green education

Behaviour change will certainly be a key area for Ghosh and the Trust's sustainability team over the next few years. The organisation has been working with employees and visitors to drive home an energy-saving ethos.

“People work for us because they believe in the core purpose that we have," Ghosh explains.

"We have a bundle of targets that we judge our employees on at the end of the year and energy targets form part of that. They really focus on saving money because that is the one thing that can be poured back into the sites and energy efficiency is proving a productive way to do so.

As the Trust's conservation techniques continue to develop, Ghosh truly believes that the National Trust will not only its targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency, but also educate its visitors along the way - paving the way for an exciting dynamic for the company's sustainability programme.

New boilers and pumps to be celebrated through open house tours, and renewable energy installations are, in many instances, offering an additional reason to visit a National Trust property. “So many of our visitors understand the link between energy impacts and the landscape, and they actually support us in what we do,” Ghosh says.

National Trust at edie Live 2016

The National Trust will be present at the edie Live 2016 exhibition in Birmingham this May, with the charity's sustainability progress and ambitons discussed in sessions on the Energy Efficiency and Onsite Solutions stages.

edie Live 2016 aims to provide a holistic view of the sustainability industry all in one place, whether you're focusing on the strategy, operations or specifications for your organisation. The show will bring to life the major themes of the market, address the biggest challenges in the seminars and provide a showcase of leading suppliers for you to try before you buy.

Find out more and register to attend edie Live 2016 here

Matt Mace


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