Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The many colours of the WI prism

From renewable energy one week to restored lives the next; just watch the many colours in the prism of life that is thrown into relief within the WI.

In this entry, I am returning to the issue of the proposed reform of the legal aid system. As regular readers will be aware, the reforms, if accepted, will make a drastic and wholly negative difference to the lives of those women who need access to legal help when they become victims of domestic violence.

Having expressed on our concerns to both Houses of Parliament, I was asked to contribute to a Bar Debate – “Broken Britain, broken families; what next?,” that was chaired by Mr Peter Lodder QC alongside Dr Maggie Atkinson, The Children's Commissioner; Mr Stephen Cobb QC, Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association; and Mr John Coughlan, member of the Family Law Justice Review Panel. I discussed what the WI had learned throughout its campaign, and referred to the WI’s latest report on legal aid in relation to domestic violence. The question was what would be the result of the reforms going through? The answer was simple: more deaths through domestic violence. I’m sure the audience of judges, barristers, lawyers and other interested parties were listening.

But moving on, what do you know about the WI? Indeed, what does the general public really know of the WI? Within the WI, we discuss this endlessly and during the past two weeks we have spoken particularly about perception of the WI in society. It isn’t easy to exactly explain what the WI because there are so many facets to the organisation. The WI prism shows up cookery, craft, campaigning, camaraderie, not to mention opening new vistas of learning and understanding. I could go on and on, but what I do want to say is that the WI is everything you want it to be, the WI is what you make of it and the WI has ever been here to inspire you. And it does inspire. Whether it is holding in your hand the beautiful shawl you have created, tasting the results of a dish you have made in a cookery class or seeing the face of someone whose life has changed for the better after you were part of a national or local campaign – these are all inspirational experiences – and for very nearly 100 years, this inspiration has passed from woman to woman into the hearts of communities.

The WI Inspiring Women. That's how women can change the world, and WI membership can give the journey of a lifetime to every woman.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Reflections on the Community Energy tour

Plan A – but there is a plan B & C & D. This we learned in Feldheim, a village in a rural community of 150 people in 36 households who took the decision to become 100% energy self-sufficient.

All households pooled their land, forming a co-operative which in turn rented the land to the energy company. The result was a wind farm which was built on this land in 1995.

Pig farming was a feature in this village and in consequence a biogas plant was also built. It is estimated that 50 - 60 new jobs were created with these developments.

Now in 2011 the statement that there was no conflict between economy and ecology might be true but it did take some time for the whole village to accept the changes. Although harmony now reigns it would appear that this might not have been true at the beginning. And eventually the wind farm company took the precaution of purchasing from individuals all their stockpiles of coal and wood which at first was deterring them from using the new system. Waste not want not, would probably have been the focus at that time.

The carrot for this project was two-fold; rent from the land, and cheap electricity. Once this was established, people in surrounding villages, also with a view of the turbines, wanted to benefit from them. They too bought into this new renewable scheme.

The company offers either to set up a trust fund from which the community benefits or to provide cheap energy. And although not in the original plan, the local grid was finally purchased by the village in 2010. Needless to say, people are much more aware of the energy they consume. A very clear reminder of the WI's own Eco Teams – very active in 2006/7.

One of the main drivers behind this was the need to create economic development in the area. One large industry in the area, owned by the wind farm company, guarantees to use generated energy for ten years and this is the crux of the viability of the whole project. The Feldheim trial was set in motion by the Federal Government looking into how green energy investment might give a boost to the area. And this does appear to have worked.

But back to plan A – this is the wind farm producing much more energy than the village can use; what is not used is 'sold on'. Plan B – if Plan A fails – is the use of biogas. This is generated from a mix of wheat and maize and liquid fertilizer from the pigs. All produced on land within a 10 kilometre area this lessens the transport issue! The biomass is fuelled by wood chips harvested from community owned wood in the surrounding forests. Then if all else fails, Plan C kicks in – two hot water tanks will generate heat for a number of hours. And there is more – Plan D – the adjacent large hall in the factory that produces trackers for photovoltaic cells will provide warmth for four hours.

All this was proudly shown to us by the mayor of the area who then guided us down the bumpy path across the open fields to view the 45 turbines that form the wind farm. A much bleaker day than when viewing the turbines in the Black Forest but, nonetheless, a memorable experience.

Back home and time to reflect on the trip from Basel to Berlin and places in between where renewable energy is a well understood concept and individuals have been motivated into action and backed by government. The Chernobyl disaster colours the background of most conversations concerning renewables.

In the areas of Germany we visited a high proportion of energy companies are owned by communities – in fact, 90% of renewable energy in Germany is generated by communities and over 50 of renewable companies are owned by individuals and communities. Flexibility in the German grid system means it can absorb these small providers. Many farmers are accepting of renewable energy. And here, communities have ownership of solutions.

We talk in the UK of the green deal and of green investment banking but investment conditions in the UK are currently so uncertain.

In 2005 we were told that there were 100 months left before tipping point is reached in the struggle against the changing climate. With approximately 30 months to go aspirations remain totally inadequate.

The experience of this past week; looking at community renewable energy in action, has given a sense of what’s possible. Community is at the heart of the success of all the schemes, underpinned by impassioned individuals at the heart of the movement.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Renewable energy tour continues

Wednesday 9 November and I find myself in Freiburg from where a short minibus drive brings five of our group to Freiamt. This is a picturesque rural area north of Freiburg and is one of five renewable energy districts in Germany. Our guide is a passionate man whose knowledge of renewable energy, in particular of wind turbines, is second to none. On our way to view the turbines within the Black Forest we visit farmers to learn about their decisions to diversify into renewable energy.

The first farmer was forced to take steps to continue to make a living some 13 years ago when Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease decimated his herd of beef cattle and pigs. From that time the maize and grass he grew to feed the animals was then used to feed the tanks and machinery which produces biogas. Into the mix goes liquid dung, brought to the site from four nearby working farms. We were told of temperatures and quantities in metres and cubic metres and all about anaerobic fermentation. The residue is put back onto the land which we learned helps to produce sweeter grass and better milk yield. Interestingly, the grass is cut five times a year in this part of the world – fresh short grass is required for biomass; back home the cutting happens twice yearly – in the interests of native flora and fauna.

All the electricity produced goes to the grid with a payback of 17 eurocents per kilowatt. Of the heat that is produced some is piped down the hill to a school – which relies on the farm for its only heat source in all weathers. The farmer and his son make a good living and don’t seem to miss the early starts to muck out or feed the animals!

The journey continues further up the hill to a dairy farm with a herd of 50 dairy cattle. As in many cases in the UK, the price per litre is not adequate to provide a living. The shortfall is made up on several ways. In the cooling of the milk from 38 degrees to 3.4 degrees the heat is used to provide litre after litre of warm water; a heat source pump. What a good and sensible idea! A proportion of this farmland is rented and used as a base to site wind turbines. Their forestry land provides timber (sold) but the crown and branches are turned into wood chips for fuel. 100 cubic metres of wood chippings burns as the equivalent of 800 litres of oil which would cost around €6,000 a year. A cubic metre of wood chips is €20. This all equates to a saving of 1,500 litres of oil a year – that is, if they used oil. This farm also makes use of its own spring water. Both farms have solar panels and photovoltaic cells in abundance on their roofs.

We move higher into the hills to 7,000 feet, to the foot of a wind turbine. A very slight swoosh can barely be heard as the blades go round. This is an 85 metre high edifice and we stand at its base which has a diameter of 70 metres. This particular one is designed to last for between 20 and 25 years. We are invited into the heart of the beast to view the gauges and information boxes. It feels like going up into a lighthouse but as we go nowhere near the top we can't see out. This turbine is owned collectively by 142 local individuals.

A short walk now takes us to a brand new turbine. Installed just 2 weeks ago and made from 1,500 tons of concrete, standing 158 metres high with each wing weighing 10 tons. This ‘beauty’ is huge, has 193 owners from the community and stands in a clearing of the Black Forest.

Looking across the vast and beautiful landscape, two more turbines stand tall above trees decked in their beautiful autumn colours. Do they detract from the scene? Do they interfere with the view? Possibly no more than unsightly power lines or pylons. Are these streamlined monsters an engineering feat of the early 21st century? In the struggle against climate change if natural energy is not harnessed and used in great quantities will there even be a vista to be viewed?

The overwhelming desire not to use nuclear power is a driving force in this area. Will Germany become carbon neutral country? There is no doubt it is taking the first steps.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Discover Community Energy – time for an energy revolution?

This week a fact finding tour has brought me to Germany to view successful examples of community energy in action. With the UK at an energy crossroads, facing major strategic decisions about how to generate energy in a sustainable way, the Co-operative, Forum for the Future and Carbon Leapfrog have organised a Discover Community Energy tour to provide insights from the German experience which has reinvigorated communities through clean energy projects.

The first day of the 3 day mission was spent in Schonau where the towns' folk bought the grid and set up a co-operatively owned renewable energy company, currently supplying 115,000 households. This all came about when one mother, Ursula Sladek, was so moved by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that she was determined to find an alternative way to provide energy and achieve a nuclear free future.

Having its own grid meant power could be purchased from renewable sources. The town was divided, initially, with a local jam manufacturer for the scheme and a local plastics manufacturer against it. But when the Schonau Church decided to set an example and cover the roof with Photovoltaic cells the majority of the town made a contribution providing the catalyst for the whole scheme to get the go ahead. As with so many community driven schemes and projects, impassioned individuals provide the vision and driving force for success. An inspiring first day!

You can follow the tour on twitter: #communityenergy or at:

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

31 October to 4 November – a very full WI week

I attended four internal meetings, which took place at 104 New Kings Road, the NFWI head office, and Denman College, where even in early November the grounds are still idyllic and the Georgian mansion inviting. The online launch of the WI's own jams, pickles, biscuits and flour was discussed and it is anticipated that the website where you will be able to buy these products will go live in a few weeks time.

I accepted an invitation from the National Youth Agency to join them at their first National Youth Worker awards ceremony, which was held at the House of Commons. The stories of three outstanding nominees were told by three equally amazing young people who had been helped and completely inspired by them. All of the nominees were truly winners, with dedication above and beyond the call of duty marking the winners out as special. Testimonies given by these young people touched my heart and gave me hope for our future. Too much cannot be put on the good the vast majority of young people do. Unfortunately, "bad press" appears to be the norm these days – as backed up by polling from Barnardo’s that shows many people seem to be at risk of giving up on our children and young people altogether.

One scheme receiving particular attention at the ceremony was the RISE project – Respect Inspire Support Empower. Out of RISE and V24V24 (24 hours a week for 24 weeks) comes a project with St John Ambulance to teach young people first aid and immediate life saving actions. The project teaches basic first aid skills, helping young people save lives in areas where they are affected by knife and gun crime. Those who have already been trained are now teaching more young people. Such is the power of peer mentoring and mutual respect.

Later in the week I spent a few hours with youth workers and young mentors at the RISE office in Shadwell and heard of the excellent work that is going on there. I also saw the mock ups, in cardboard, of knifed arms and legs used for training purposes. They have also made short films which are well worth a watch. No doubt you will be able to see them on YouTube before long.

It was interesting to learn that on Thursday 3 November the Princess Royal hosted a reception at Buckingham Palace for young achievers. My new friends from RISE were all there, but I must have missed any newspaper articles about this event. I do hope there were some. These are inspiring stories that it is important to share.

Today I head off to the House of Lords to brief peers about the NFWI’s research on the impact of plans to reform Legal Aid. The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill will reduce women’s access to justice, presenting obstacles for women trying to access legal aid after experiencing domestic violence. Last Monday, together with three victims of domestic violence, I spoke to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence regarding the same issues. These damaging reforms are not yet agreed; further debate will take place when the Bill passes to the Lords later this month. You can read our report, Legal Aid is a Lifeline.