National Trust champions on-site solutions in renewables revolution

EXCLUSIVE: The National Trust is continuing its march towards self-sufficient energy generation, having produced 12% of its heat from on-site renewable energy sources in 2016 – four years ahead of Britain's national renewable heat targets.

The British conservation organisation has also drastically reduced its reliance on oil consumption, with a 50% drop on 2009 levels, as of December 2016.

These figures were revealed to edie today (15 February) by Nigel Blandford, the National Trust’s heat lead helping to deliver the organisation’s £35m Renewable Energy Investment (REI) programme. Blandford, who was speaking ahead of his appearance at edie Live 2017 in May, confirmed that a mixture of biomass and heat pumps have now overtaken oil as the National Trust’s primary heating fuel.

Blandford and his team are capitalising on a key opportunity to lower energy costs while reducing emissions in the shift from oil to renewable on-site sustainability solutions on historic – often listed –properties. The Trust now spends nearly £6m a year on heating and powering all of its sites including historic houses, offices, visitor centres and holiday cottages.

“The Trust owns large historic buildings which are very difficult and expensive to heat because of their listed nature and their age,” Blandford explained. “They can be quite leaky buildings with a view to heating them. They are principally off the gas grid so a lot of these properties are heated with oil. There’s also the ongoing pollution concern in case there are spills of oil during the fitting. There is a strong mood to move away from heating with oil.”

The National Trust already has more than 140 renewable energy systems in operation on sites across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with an installed capacity of 2.3MW heating and over 1MW of electricity generation.

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

A variety of micro and small-scale energy schemes using wood fuel, solar, heat pumps, hydro and wind are helping the organisation reach an overarching target to produce 50% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. Blandford explained that the Trust is working towards energy efficiency, and self-sufficiency, based on the specific requirements of each of the properties it manages across the country.

“There is a strong driver to pick the best technological solution for each property,” he said. “If we have a property that’s runinng on oil but also has a large amount of woodland on-site and there are good conservation and wildlife reasons to manage that woodland, then obviously biomass will be the best solution. Conversely, with the installation of the marine-sourced heat pump at Plas Newydd in the Menai Strait in North Wales, that was the best solution because the site is right by the sea.”

Onsite solutions

The Plas Newydd site referenced by Blandford 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 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.

The property is one of many of the Trust’s locations that no longer rely on oil as a primary energy source, thanks to a growth in renewable energy sources and infrastructure. Croft Castle in Herefordshire, for instance, was recently 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. Meanwhile, Upton House in Warwickshire, which was once powered by 25,000 litres of oil every year, is now fuelled by two wood-pellet boilers, saving £6,000 a year on energy bills and 55 tonnes of carbon emissions.

These innovative solutions are keeping the Trust on track with its ambitious renewable energy target, on top of efforts to reduce energy use across the organisation’s estate by 20% by 2020. Looking ahead, the National Trust will continue to seek new ways to reduce energy consumption while increasing the amount generated from the abundant natural assets on its land, Blandford said.

“We’re still moving forward,” he said. “We’ve not hit our 50% [renewable energy] target yet so we’ll be carrying on with a mix of mature renewables. One of the things that we’ll need to tackle is that we do have some properties that are entirely off the mains and are using generators. How do we heat and power these properties for the future so that we have totally off-grid properties?

“We’ve done most of the low-hanging fruit. We’ve now got more challenges. We’ve come up with some interesting solutions for properties where we have constraints. One of these going forward is Castle Drogo in the South-West England, where we haven’t got the mains capacity to export as much energy as we would like, yet we are refurbishing a hydro system. Any excess electricity generated we’re prevented from exporting, so we will put that into a thermal buffer which will be used as the primary source for heating the property. So we do have certain constraints, but we do tend to come up with some great solutions.”

Government support

To facilitate the National Trust’s continued integration of onsite renewables, a stable policy environment will of course be required, particularly when it comes to low-carbon heating solutions. While 12% of the National Trust’s heat is now met by renewable sources, the UK Government remains some way off meeting its 2020 national objective of the same percentage, with green energy sources only providing  4.5% of the UK’s heat  as of 2014.

The Government has often been criticised for a ‘lack of foresight’ in low-carbon heat leading to uncertainty among the sector – exacerbated by recent proposals to reform the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) subsidy scheme. However, the Government has proposed to soften changes to financial support in recent months, a move which was welcomed today by Blandford.

“It’s certainly better than we expected and we are grateful,” he said. “There are, at times, certain situations where we could do with a greater incentive. We do a lot of district heating in rural properties where we connect several buildings up. There is financial support at a national level for district heating schemes, but due to the nature of our organisation, we don’t qualify for that.

“I’d like to see a more flexible and discretionary finance package which all types of businesses organisations could access and tap into in order to deliver the Government’s national heat priorities.”

Nigel Blandford at edie Live 2017

The National Trust’s heat lead Nigel Blandford is among the expert speakers appearing on stage at edie Live 2017 at the NEC Birmingham on 23-24 May. 

Blandford is appearing in the opening session of the Onsite Generation Theatre on Day 1 of the show, which takes a closer look at those organisations taking the lead and integrating onsite renewables into their business strategy and operations.

Find out more about edie Live 2017 and register for your free two-day pass here.

George Ogleby

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