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Exclusive interview: Vijay Bhopal Projects Director Scene Consulting Ltd

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Vijay Bhopal is a renewable energy, environment and international development professional – forming and leading on a range of community energy related projects in the UK and India. Always interested in innovative partnerships and delivery models that use renewable energy as a method of improving livelihood and ensuring resilient communities, he was winner of Scottish Renewable’s ‘Entrepreneur Award’ at Young Professionals in Green Energy 2015. He talks to Blue & Green about Scene, the community energy specialists.

 

In 140 characters or less – what is Scene?

Scene works in renewable energy delivery, research & ICT, to help communities in UK, India and elsewhere to benefit from power production.

What was the driver for creating Scene – what gap did it fill?

We started in Scotland where there was, and still is, plenty of political support for renewable energy, but the beneficiaries of this renewables boom were overwhelmingly large companies and wealthy landowners. In our opinion, the problems facing the community sector in many places around the globe were i) lack of coordination, ii) limited ambition, and iii) lack of research and use of technology & data.

Therefore, the idea was to fill a dual a research and practitioner role within the market, ensuring that the data on community energy was of high standard and could be used to advocating the socio-economic benefits of community energy in policy and investment circles.

Who is it primarily for?

Much of the research and data mapping work that we have done has been commissioned by governments, think-tanks and universities. However, this work has been done to increase visibility of the sector and to help form arguments in favour of helpful policy and resourcing.

The ultimate aim of what we do is to increase the number of community energy projects on the ground, which might be directly though our consultancy work, or indirectly though influence of our research.

More recently we have been working in developing countries, using renewable energy solutions coupled with ICT to help raise the standard of living for communities in chronic poverty. We believe that energy and technology are a crucial combination in this regard. Our work aims to showcase social enterprise methods that work for local stakeholders, rather than espousing the traditional top down methods of grant aid in international development.

What difference does Scene want it to make?

We want to be an influential organisation within the distributed energy sector, with a mandate to help non-experts to take part in the market. This takes different guises, depending on the geography, but generally the difference that we want to make is to increase the share of community ownership of energy generation. Additionally, we aim to help the community sector to be more innovative and agile, rather than lagging behind the private sector.

When it comes to truly engaging people in energy issues, whether to encourage energy transition or for poverty reduction, data and technology are key, and we will continue to innovate in this regard.

What are the barriers to making that difference?

There are many barriers; money, NIMBYism, competition with the private sector, reliance on volunteers… and the UK government certainly isn’t helping with its attacks on renewable energy, and more recently on community energy specifically (removal of tax relief eligibility for community projects).

However, perhaps there is a more intrinsic issue with the community sector, in that it is dispersed and faces difficulty in unifying and speaking as one. Whilst representative bodies are strengthening, individual groups still do not network and learn from each other in anywhere near to an efficient manner, meaning that groups struggle to innovate and tend to be a little behind the curve. I think this could be helped and costs reduced by embracing technology! Engaged learning does not happen through government toolkits, it happens through face to face meetings, workshops, video seminars, Skype calls, chat-forums etc.

It would be of great benefit to the whole community sector is some of the burden was taken off older volunteers, and taken up by younger people who may bring tech savviness to the table, to compliment the experience and knowledge of other team members.

Who’s helping you overcome those barriers?

Community Energy England, Local Energy Scotland and Cooperatives UK are becoming really strong voices for our sector, and I hope they continue to take the UK government to task.

In terms of using technology to try to try to make the sector more efficient, I’m happy to say that other organisations are beginning to realise the benefits of this approach, despite the activation energy that it requires.

Is UK and Scottish government action today commensurate with the energy challenges we face?

The UK government is following a shambolic energy trajectory at the moment, so much so that Amber Rudd announced recently that the government ‘doesn’t have the right policies.’ I can understand the allure of the continued ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the UK, in the face of an impending energy gap. However, the resultant £95/MWh deal that has been struck with a French/Chinese consortium makes a mockery of much of the rhetoric that comes out of Westminster. I’d much sooner see a concerted effort made in demand reduction and energy storage, rather than a long-term commitment to a questionable energy source.

The Scottish Government tends to have its cake and eat it too. During the referendum campaign, much of the SNP’s economic models relied heavily on oil prices of $100+. Today we’re sitting at $42.8 a barrel, leading to decimation of the North Sea oil industry.

I’m glad that the Scottish government is so heavily into renewable energy, however, it is clear to me that this is an industrially strategic rather than moral position, in that Scotland is taking advantage of England’s apathy in progressing towards our legally binding targets, and creating wealth and jobs in low carbon sectors.

At least heading into COP 21, on balance, one can feel proud to be Scottish.

How can people – individuals and organisations – find out more about Scene?

You can find out more about Scene on our website www.sceneconsulting.com. Our work in India is detailed at www.urjaasamadhan.com and our international community energy mapping project is at www.energyarchipelago.com. And of course, I tweet @vij_scene

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Energy

Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?

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sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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Energy

7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees

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As an energy startup, you’re always looking to offer the most competitive packages to entice top-tier talent. This can be tough, especially when trying to put something together that’s both affordable but also has perks that employees are after.

After all, this is an incredibly competitive field and one that’s constantly doing what it can to stay ahead. However, that’s why I’m bringing you a few helpful benefits that could be what bolsters you ahead of your competition. Check them out below:

Financial Advising

One benefit commonly overlooked by companies is offering your employees financial advising services, which could help them tremendously in planning for their long-term goals with your firm. This includes anything from budgeting and savings plans to recommendations for credit repair services and investments. Try to take a look at if your energy company could bring on an extra person or two specifically for this role, as it will pay off tremendously regarding retention and employee happiness.

Life Insurance

While often included in a lot of health benefits packages, offering your employees life insurance could be an excellent addition to your current perks. Although seldom used, life insurance is a small sign that shows you care about the life of their family beyond just office hours. Additionally, at such a low cost, this is a pretty simple aspect to add to your packages. Try contacting some brokers or insurance agents to see if you can find a policy that’s right for your firm.

Dedicated Time To Enjoy Their Hobbies

Although something seen more often in startups in Silicon Valley, having dedicated office time for employees to enjoy their passions is something that has shown great results. Whether it be learning the piano or taking on building a video game, having your team spend some time on the things they truly enjoy can translate to increased productivity. Why? Because giving them the ability to better themselves, they’ll in turn bring that to their work as well.

The Ability To Work Remotely

It’s no secret that a lot of employers despise the idea of letting their employees work remotely. However, it’s actually proven to hold some amazing benefits. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 95% of employers that allow their employees to telework reported an increased rate of retention, saving on both turnover and sick days. Depending on the needs of each individual role, this can be a strategy to implement either whenever your team wants or on assigned days. Either way, this is one perk almost everyone will love.

Health Insurance

Even though it’s mandated for companies with over 50 employees, offering health insurance regardless is arguably a benefit well received across the board. In fact, as noted in research compiled by KFF, 28.6% of employers with less than 50 people still offered health care. Why is that the case? Because it shows you care about their well-being, and know that a healthy employee is one that doesn’t have to worry about astronomical medical bills.

Unlimited Time Off

This is a perk that almost no employer offers but should be regarded as something to consider. According to The Washington Post, only 1-2% of companies offer unlimited vacation, which it’s easy to see why. A true “unlimited vacation” program could be a firm’s worse nightmare, with employees skipping out every other week to enjoy themselves. However, with the right model in place that rewards hard work with days off, your employees will absolutely adore this policy.

A Full Pantry

Finally, having a pantry full of food can be one perk that’s not only relatively inexpensive but also adds to the value of the workplace. As noted by USA Today, when surveying employees who had snacks versus those who didn’t, 67% of those who did reported they were “very happy” with their work life. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this could make, especially when considering the price point. Consider adding a kitchen to your office if you haven’t already, and always keep the snacks and drinks everyone wants fully stocked. Doing so will increase morale tremendously.

Final Thoughts

Compiling a great package for your energy company is going to take some time in looking at what you can afford versus what’s the most you can offer. While it might mean cutting back in other areas, having a workforce that feels like you genuinely want to take care of them can take you far. And with so many different benefits to include in your energy company’s package, which one is your favorite? Comment with your answers below!

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