Sandford Hydro: How a river harnessed the power of a local community

In the early 2000s, generating clean energy from a weir in the river at Sandford-upon-Thames was no more than a dream shared by a small group of green-minded friends.

Liz Shatford, the parish clerk of the small Oxfordshire village of Sandford-on-Thames, recalls commenting to a friend how it was a shame that the power of the Thames running through her community was no longer used to generate power.

Little did she realise that in that chance observation, an idea had been born that would lead – more than 10 years later – to a huge, state-of-the-art hydro power scheme generating enough electricity for the entire village – population approximately 1,200.

Working together on electric dreams

It took several years to bear fruit, but Liz’s chance remark slowly grew into a small band of volunteers who, between them, formed a community interest company to fund and commission a feasibility study proving the viability of a small renewable power plant.

But turning plans on a page into three working turbines, each bigger than a double decker bus, was testing for a group of local people giving their spare time and efforts for free.

A helping hand from Low Carbon Hub

Their fortunes changed when the members of Sandford Hydro Community Interest Company were introduced to a social enterprise in nearby Oxford.

Low Carbon Hub had already proven its ability to plan and fund renewable energy schemes, ever since it leased the roof from the Oxford Bus Company’s depot and used it to install 540 solar panels in 2013.

In keeping with Sandford Hydro’s community beginnings, the money generated from selling the electricity from Oxford Bus Company was then reinvested in community schemes aimed to reduce energy consumption and fund more renewable generation.

Low Carbon Hub took over the development of the scheme and in spring 2016, having secured planning consent, it launched the first of two community share offers that together would raise the £1.4m needed for the new generator.

“We got more than 450 investors from across the country, but a high percentage of were local to Sandford and Kennington,” explains Beth McAllister of Low Carbon Hub.

Building the Hydro

And play their part they did. Within months, work had begun to build the foundations and, with the help of a loan from Charity Bank, the first of three 14-metre long, 22-ton Archimedes screws were lifted into place in May 2017.

It took a further year – and the second share offer – to complete and test the scheme then commission the generator in August 2018, ready in time for the first rain of autumn to arrive and begin generating power.

Joining the Co-operative Movement

As soon as those rains began turning the turbines, Co-op Energy was there to buy any surplus energy generated, just as it does with more than 75 community energy projects across the UK.

From 2019, new and existing Co-op Energy customers can even choose to buy all the electricity they use exclusively from community energy projects like Sandford Hydro.

Now, Sandford Hydro is fully operational with the capacity to produce 1.6 GWh of clean electricity a year.

That’s enough to power 500 homes, and save two tonnes of CO2 a day, but for Liz Shatford and her team, it is also the realisation of more than a decade of dreams.

Powering Other Communities

Just as importantly, the generation of electricity marks the start of a process that will eventually lead to more renewable energy schemes being kick-started across Oxfordshire.

Beth adds: “What’s really important to us is that the revenues generated by schemes like Sandford Hydro go back into the community.

“As well as delivering returns for the investors, the surplus energy we generate enable us to fund other initiatives designed to reduce carbon emissions and to share the expertise we’ve gained with other community energy projects around the country.”

“A lot of people invested modest amounts but wanted to be able to walk past the hydro in the future and say: ‘I was part of that.’ People want to act, to be part of a much bigger shift towards renewables and know that they played their part.” Beth McAllister, Low Carbon Hub

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