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TOWN INSTALLS TURBINE TO CUT OLD PEOPLE'S POWER BILL

If Bandon in Co. Cork is any guide, communities are prepared to back the right sort of renewable energy project with cash and enthusiasm. In May 1992, four friends bought a bankrupt earthmoving contractor's yard near the centre of the town at a liquidator's auction with a bid of 65,000. "We had no money and had get round to the bank quickly to arrange a loan so that we could put the 10% deposit down" says one of the four, Paddy O'Sullivan, an electrical contractor. His three colleagues were Paddy Connolly, a builder, John Perrott, a civil engineer and P.J. McLoughlin, a pharmacist. "The yard covered about 1.5 acres and was surrounded by ruined buildings but we weren't interested in that," O'Sullivan says. "What we wanted was the seven-foot weir on the Bandon river beside the yard which went with the property. Our idea was to put in a turbine to generate electricity to heat and light St. Michael's, an old people's home run by a local voluntary group, and save them £14,000 a year."

After paying the deposit, they had to raise not just the balance of the purchase price but also the cost of building and installing the turbine, a 48-inch Francis producing 70kW built by Paddy Belton of Richfort, Co. Longford , which eventually worked out at £120,000. "We asked people for interest-free loans for five years and the first big one we got was for £10,000 from the Bandon Co-op [which makes butter with milk from 500 farms besides supplying feed and fertiliser]. This gave us the leverage to go to the two main banks in the town and ask them to match it, which they did," O'Sullivan says. Getting an interest-free loan from a bank is some achievement. Then a community group which had collected £26,000 to build a hall lent that too, on condition it could get it back whenever they needed it. Another community group put up £10,000 on the same basis.

The four men also began hunting for grants. "We chased every grant there is and had a 95% failure rate," O'Sullivan comments. Eventually, though, they received £60,000, including £30,000 from the local Leader, an EU rural development programme, and £10,000 from the Ireland-America fund. In addition to the grants, they received £20,000 in donations from local people.

While the fund-raising was going on, the team felt they needed to learn more about water power. Their original idea was to restore an old turbine beside the weir which had been out of use for many years. "We did a tremendous amount of consultation. We questioned every turbine owner in the country to pick up what we needed to know" O'Sullivan says. Eventually, they decided that restoration would not enable them to get the maximum power from the site and that they would need to install a new turbine to do so. John Perrott designed the installation and Paddy Connolly built it. "We had to cut seven feet down into the rock to deepen the tailrace as otherwise the flow of water out of the turbine would have been impeded and we would have lost power," Connolly says. "The most helpful person we met was Paddy Belton. His quality and prices were the best, too. He's a marvellous man."

Belton's business, the Belton Engineering Works , is mainly a welding shop producing anything from structural steelwork to spiral staircases. He builds turbines because he is fascinated by their geometry: "I've always been interested in alternative energy. I was looking through my diaries the other day and found I'd been thinking about turbines back in the 1940s." However, the first turbine he actually built was completed in the mid-1970s. "It went into an old mill and it wasn't that successful, but, still, it was good enough so I could carry on." These days, his target is to produce a turbine in the 2-10kW range for under £1,000. "The problem with turbines is that they are too expensive and electricity is too cheap. The idea is that we'll supply plans and the people will do 50% of the work for themselves. I hope to be taking out a patent later this year" he told me in 1995. "You can save a lot of money if the electricity is just used for heating because the electronic load controller is expensive."

By December 1992, the Bandon installation was complete and representatives of the Electricity Supply Board arrived to test it before authorising its connection to the grid. Belton was there, uneasy among the men in suits. "We had problems getting the sluice gate down fully and there was a lot of turbulence. I had guaranteed that the turbine would deliver at least 60kW but the ESB man taking the readings kept saying the output was only twelve. Was it the turbulence? Had I miscalculated? Was the shape of the housing terribly wrong? But then the ESB man realised that he was only measuring one phase of the three phase supply and the actual output was 62kW. You can bet I was relieved."

Apart from the sticking sluice gate, the only teething problem the installation experienced was that the turbine intake kept getting blocked by water weeds or fertiliser bags being carried downstream. However, John Perrott designed an automatic scraper to clear the intake screen every fifteen minutes and since that was fitted the installation has worked perfectly, producing about 400,000kWh a year. None of this had gone to the old people's home by mid-1995. Instead, it was being sold to the ESB and the income was being set aside to enable the £70,000 of interest-free loans to be repaid. However, Paddy O'Sullivan was optimistic that the contractor's yard would soon be sold, this time without the weir and water rights, for £100,000. As soon as that happened, he said, the home would get its power directly and only if there was a surplus would it go to the grid.

"The whole thing was Paddy O'Sullivan's idea," Paddy Connolly says. "He had been talking to the previous owners before they went into liquidation." Did you widen the membership of your group when your bid for the site proved successful? I asked. "We did not," he replied. "We'd worked together a lot before and we'd learnt from being involved in other voluntary organisations that involving more people means more suggestions but not a lot more help in carrying them out."

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