Monthly Archives: September 2014

New generation: Hackney Energy reboots playground’s solar power

Victoria Omobuwajo

Beaming: Banister House Solar Co-Op Intern Victoria Omobuwajo. Photograph: Millie Darling

Solar panels on the roof of Homerton Grove Adventure Playground’s building have recently been repaired in a joint project by playground staff and volunteers from local community group Hackney Energy.

Volunteers from Hackney Energy and the first solar co-operative to be launched in the borough, Banister House Solar Co-op, helped repair the system – one of the first of its kind to be connected to the national grid.

The team, working with Hackney-based solar firm Athena Electrical, found it was the wiring and the inverter that had stopped working.

The inverter is crucial as it transforms the energy generated by the panels from DC electricity to AC so it can work in the national grid.

The panels were installed nearly 20 years ago by Wind and Sun and are still in good working order. The company gave the new inverter to the playground at a reduced cost in order for them to get back on the grid.

Bridget Handscombe, Play Manager for Hackney Play Association, which runs the playground on Wardle Street, said: “I’d had quotes of £6,000 to replace the inverter but we couldn’t even start to look at paying something like that.

“We fundraise so that disabled children can go swimming or to replace the play area structure, so this just wouldn’t have made it to the top of the list.”

Solar Future

Green Party MEP for London Jean Lambert attended the launch of the new solar system. She said: “”It’s fantastic to see solar power back in action at Homerton Grove Adventure Playground, and community projects in Hackney leading the way.

“Solar is the future, and co-operatives and community groups can play a big part making it happen. I hope this will inspire others to get involved with local community energy projects or set up their own.”

Cllr Jonathan McShane, Cabinet Member for Health, Social Care and Culture, also came along to the relaunch party. He tweeted:Bain

New generation

Some of the volunteers who took part in the project were young people from the Banister House Estate in Homerton currently taking part in an internship scheme organised by the Banister House Solar Co-op.

Victoria Omobuwajo, one of the Banister House interns, said: “I always knew that fossil fuels were harming the environment and think solar is a great idea.

“Working with Hackney Energy as one of the Banister interns has showed me it is possible to make solar work in the UK. A lot of people on the Banister Estate don’t really know about solar and how it’s going to benefit them – we are showing them that it can save you money and is great for the environment.

“One of my main aims is to take solar to other countries that don’t have electricity. My mum lives in Nigeria and when the only electricity provider turns the power off, she has to use a generator just so she can call me.

“Even to do simple things, like a child coming home to do their homework, is impossible without electricity. They need an alternative.”

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Could London run on more sun?

Written for the Hackney Citizen and first published here.

A fifth of London’s electricity supply could come from solar power, according to a new report commissioned by Green London Assembly member Jenny Jones. Yet the capital has the lowest uptake of the technology of anywhere in the UK.

Perversely, London is beaten into last place by both Scotland and the North East, in spite of the fact that these areas get much less sunshine.

Just one in 260 London households has solar panels on the roof, compared to the UK leader, the South West region, where one in every 32 homes generates its own solar power.

London’s 13,000 installations could meet the annual electricity needs of 12,000 houses, while on the other side of the country, the South West’s solar panels can supply the equivalent of some 110,000 homes.

Hackney is in the bottom 10 in London for the number of solar panels per household, with just one in every 441 dwellings generating its own solar energy. Waltham Forest comes out as the clear solar star, while Tower Hamlets finishes in last place.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. They still work on a cloudy day, although the stronger the sunshine, the more energy produced.

An average system for a domestic property will set you back between £6,000 and £7,000, with the cost falling all the time, but it should generate enough electricity in a year to power a typical household.

And under the Government’s Green Deal, people that choose solar can get cash back for their investment.

So why can’t we keep up? Germany, where the climate is not dissimilar from the South of England, recently surpassed its own record of generating 50 per cent of its energy from the sun. Here, the focus has been on community, commercial and industrial installations over domestic.

The Greens argue this should be London’s focus too, just like the installation on Blackfriars Bridge that produces enough solar energy to power 333 homes all year round.

“We need a City Hall team who can visit residents in flats, community groups, or business with advice and kick-start support,” Jones says. “We need to harvest solar generated electricity from the underused and empty roof tops of London’s commercial and industrial businesses, supermarkets, car parks, schools, transport and public buildings and other spaces.”

London’s first community energy project was set up by Repowering London in Brixton, emerging from one of the ten ‘Low Carbon Zones’, which were dropped by the London Mayor in 2012.

Repowering London is now supporting Hackney Energy, the first project of this kind in the borough, which is due to go live in the
coming months.

“London has enormous potential for solar,” Millie Darling, chair of Hackney Energy, says. “On my cycles around London I look up to see rooftops all around that could play a part in powering our city.”

“London has an important role to play in leading the way in the world’s transition to renewables,” she adds.

Hackney Energy is also working with Repowering London to set up the borough’s first solar energy co-operative, planned for the Banister House estate in Homerton, whose large, flat roofs make them ideal.

The project will be funded via a community share offer, which both local residents and non-residents can invest in. All income created by the electricity generated will go back to co-operative members and into the Banister House Community Fund for energy efficiency initiatives.

Meanwhile, Jenny Jones is calling on the Mayor to develop a London-wide solar strategy, with targets in place by the end of next year.

How one Shoreditch firm is winning the world series of broadband

Written for the Hackney Citizen and first published here.

Tech City may be the centre of the UK’s technology industry, but it has a serious problem with broadband.

High-speed internet is notoriously hard to come by in the former warehouse districts of East London. So hard, in fact, that Tech City’s broadband woes have been described as a “national embarrassment” by Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch.

Globally, the UK is languishing in 15th place for overall broadband speeds. Locally, thousands of homes in Hackney can’t afford a decent internet connection. If there was ever a hole in the market, this is it.

Like most who’ve set up in Tech City, Optimity has developed with disruption in mind, going head-to-head with behemoths like Virgin and BT to offer high-speed internet to the burgeoning digital community.

While fibre optic broadband provided by the big telecoms companies may be fast enough when you get it, it can take months for your chosen provider to dig up the road and lay the cables — too long for most young digital businesses to wait.

Award-winning local firm Optimity cuts out the middle man by providing high-speed wireless antennae that are fixed to the roofs of buildings, a service that can be up in a matter of days.

Its radio wave technology can run at speeds of up to one gigabit – that’s 200 times faster than regular broadband – and if there’s ever a problem with it, an engineer will simply walk around to the office and switch the box.

The company is a resident in one of Shoreditch’s most striking buildings, Zetland House, the 100,000-square-foot former home to the print works for the Bank of England.
Optimity provides wireless broadband exclusively to London businesses, which means no three-month wait to get started and no dealing with far-flung call centres.

“Demand for high-speed is growing very quickly, full stop,” says founder of Optimity Anthony Impey. “iPads, for example, didn’t even exist pre-2010 and four years is an incredibly fast period to become nearly ubiquitous.

“People are also working less at home now than they were, opting to work side-by-side at local coffee shops and co-working spaces. So there are a huge number of businesses in the area that just need faster and faster internet.”

Global competition

Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has said London is the number one competitor to his city in the technology race. But Impey goes so far as to whittle that down to New York versus Hackney: “This is the heart of the whole digital community. The focus on building infrastructure in Hackney is crucial to London’s leadership as a tech capital.”

At the moment, Optimity serves some 250 local businesses, with the area between Shoreditch and the Olympic Park its key target. Business users can pay around £500 to £600 per month for high-speed broadband, but with its low installation costs, Optimity can cut that cost by about a tenth. The radio spectrum used by Optimity is a low-power, high-performance system originally released by the Ministry of Defence.

The company’s mid-size antenna is just 120mm square, smaller than a satellite dish, and has a tiny footprint compared to a mobile phone mast. Over time this will become even smaller and cost even less, hopefully allowing for the technology to be passed on to residential users — a threatening prospect for the clunky status quo of web providers.

‘David and Goliath’ battle

Impey says that the great digital revolution took the older telecoms companies by surprise and he believes they have made a notable lack of investment at the exact time when London needs it most. “How do we become a gigabit city?” he ponders, referring to the uppermost upload and download speeds made possible with today’s technology. “We need infrastructure that can meet the demand of the tech companies not just today, but in three, five and 10 years’ time.”

The CEO paints his company’s story as a ‘David and Goliath’ fight. “Our competitors are so much more significant and have almost limitless resources… We deliver a very good product, underpinned by an amazing service.”

Just like many companies operating in Tech City, Optimity did not set out to become what it is today, a wireless internet service provider (WISP). The company used to simply offer IT and telecoms services but took the opportunity to ‘pivot’, as the techies call it, when a client needed high-speed broadband, fast.

But, having worked in computing in Hackney for a more than a decade they can also manage clients’ IT and telecoms services too, whether that’s a virtual server or a telephone system.

Thinking local

Optimity has won awards for its commitment to provide local jobs and its outreach work with young people. The company is a backer of Tech City Stars, which recruits young people onto apprenticeships with the help of some 380 sponsor organisations, and is training some apprentices in its office. “There is an amazing amount of untapped talent in Hackney,” Impey says.

Ali Hussain has been an apprentice at Optimity for almost a year. “I had no idea about Tech City but as I hadn’t got the grades to go to university it was another option. Recently I got to go up to the 39th floor of the Heron Tower to help install some kit and had a view of London I never thought I’d see.”

Impey is a huge supporter of the Government’s Super Connected Cities initiative, which helps businesses fund the step change in their internet connection: “This is such an important piece of infrastructure – I’d say even more important than roads and airports, even train lines”, says Impey.

“Moving data around in a digital economy is everything. If you closed down the internet network in proportion to the tube, there’d be a revolution.”