Interview: Steve Cains and the democratisation of energy

Steve Cains is the head of Public Power Solutions (PPS), an energy company who are fully owned by Swindon Borough Council. They have recently received planning permission for a 50MW battery storage facility on a council-owned brownfield site and Environment Journal spoke to him about the rapidly changing energy sector.

What are the key benefits of council-owned companies such as PPS to local authorities?

They can protect their assets. All local authorities own assets, and now they can generate income sustainably in a way that supports the wider aspirations of the council, whether that be a fuel poverty angle or a sustainable mobility angle such as of rolling out an EV charging network based on the council’s own power generation.

It offers income generation on a sustainable basis with really big environmental and climate change benefits. We advise councils to keep hold of the assets. We say what land do you have? What value does it have? and in terms of renewable or energy storage project, what value can that bring back to the council?

In Swindon, the current battery storage scheme is on an old depot site, behind a retail park. It’s not got a lot of use, and the council could be minded to sell that off, but actually putting a battery on it and charging rent and business rates in the future is a great way of using that site for the council’s benefit. The council in Swindon have a 200-megawatt target for the production of renewable energy by 2020, and whilst the battery doesn’t generate electricity it helps balance the local grid which then reinforces and facilitates their renewable energy target.

In 5 years time, where do you see energy sector in the UK?

People band around words like smart grid and blockchain-driven energy transactions, and we’ll see the further democratisation of energy. From my perspective, there’s an interesting role for the public sector. In Germany and Sweden, there’s a much more integrated approach to the grid. You see more projects which take more ownership of the grid and have more control of how energy is used. There is also potential to sell electricity between neighbours based on a distributed ledger system.

I see a big role for the public sector in driving that forward, coming in as a stakeholder in new developments. I think if we can have the best of the public sector and the innovation of the private sector to create a balance then we could have a really interesting future. It will be the public sector creating a sustainable platform for innovation that will be a deciding factor.

Has the privatisation of energy failed?

I don’t think it’s a binary issue. Privatisation has resulted in some really good energy companies but there have also been other companies getting too big and not necessarily having great practice. What we try and advocate is a balance, and we’ve got schemes moving forward that are a little more integrated that need a public sector push. The private sector is there to innovate and a balance has to be achieved. Schemes have to be commercial but also has to have community benefits.

Are councils owned energy companies open to collaboration?

There’s huge potential. You don’t want to be reinventing the wheel. There are 3-400 councils so it makes sense to collaborate. There’s a platform for it to happen and a big opportunity for local authorities to collaborate. Some shire authorities may have lots of land assets, some London authorities may not, but actually, co-investing or joint arrangments could really help everybody benefit from the new energy revolution.

Are the public behind council owned energy companies?

The benefit for the consumer is that they are able to invest in schemes at a low entry point. Common Farm and Chapel Farm were 5-megawatt solar schemes costing roughly £5m each, £2m of each was made for community investment at a level of £5. It’s about inclusivity and making sure the benefits are available. The proof is in the pudding. We try and drive forward schemes that do have clear community benefits. It’s about connecting with the local community in a way that’s authentic.

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett is the editor of Environment Journal. Follow him on Twitter

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