2015  Construction, commissioning ……..and chips before lunch.

16 January 2015

Whereas up to now the weather has been bad, for the last week it has been dreadful and we have had torrential rain, making working conditions very difficult for the groundwork team. There has been a small landslip on one of the walls in the fuel silo pit but that is nothing to the problems they have had digging out the drain from the fuel silo down to the fishing lake which requires a trench 4 metres deep. Overnight one section collapsed and it had to be re-routed.

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Craig (head of groundworks) says this sort of work shouldn’t be done in winter and he is right but the problem for the Springbok Co-op is that we got planning permission in July 2014 just as the Department of Energy and Climate Change started to reduce the Renewable Heat Incentive for boilers up to 200kW every three months. Plus we have a commitment to the residents to provide this new heating system and we can’t pull out. So we have to press on as fast as we can to have any hope of commissioning the system and submitting the application to OFGEM before the next degression on 1 April 2015. That means construction works have to be carried out over the winter months.

26 January 2015

The crane arrived this am to hoist the concrete slabs which will form the walls for the fuel silo into the hole.

Crane on site to lift in walls of fuel silo 26 January 2015

Crane on site to lift in walls of fuel silo 26 January 2015

Lots of people on site. Weather good (no wind) and all going according to plan when I left the site. I’ll be very relieved when this bit of the build is done.

Building the fuel silo

Building the fuel silo

11 February 2015

I do get the occasional question about insulation and heat loss in the heat main. So on the basis that this lot will soon be below ground and out of sight I thought I’d better take a few shots of the pipe we are using.

Close up of the pipe used for the heat main showing high levels of insulationj

Close up of the pipe used for the heat main showing high levels of insulation

We are using some of the highest grade insulated pipes available, This makes sense because we don’t get paid for the heat produced by the boiler, but only for the heat which reaches the individual heat meters at the point where it enters the premises.

One man and his pipe - Craig still looks cheerful given how difficult this stuff is to lay and how much there is still left to do

One man and his pipe – Craig still looks cheerful given how difficult this stuff is to lay and how much there is still left to do

17 February 2015

Site visit – I’ve had feedback from Bill Hicks that it is tough going for the groundwork team. This is confirmed by the visit to site. Craig is currently trying to dig the trench for the heat main from the boiler house to Care Ashore’s main building Sachel Court. This requires great skill and concentration due to the number of existing underground services. To date over the entire dig Craig reckons he has encountered 110 services in total. It is a tribute to his skill that he hasn’t hit a single one.

Although Bill Hicks has been at Springbok for 25 years even he isn’t aware of all the historic services. One particularly unexpected underground obstacle (a fire hydrant) has resulted in the intended route of the Sachel Court heat main having to be abandoned (on the right in the picture below) and a different route taken.

Trench for heat main to Sachel Court on left, abandoned route on right

Trench for heat main to Sachel Court on left, abandoned route on right

20 February 2015

End of the week update email from Bill Hicks, Estates manager at Care Ashore and one of the Co-op Directors to say that the pipework has now been pulled up to the main house. Also that the back of the house does look like a battle field and may have to be left to dry out before Craig starts to fill it in. The fuel silo is also moving on with the shuttering being prepared ready for concrete pouring next week.

26 February 2015

I’ve been in discussion with our contractors Douch for the last week regarding the revised programme. There is no escaping from the fact that the project is running some weeks behind and there is little realistic prospect of commissioning anything before the next RHI degression on 1 April. That is only five weeks away, but we still don’t know exactly what the new rate will be. I’ve emailed the RHI Team at DECC to find out when they are going to announce this.

Meanwhile, on a more positive note, yesterday the Co-op and Care Ashore signed the main heat supply agreement. We now have to tackle the domestic contracts but after writing and negotiating one construction contract, one 21 year lease and a complicated heat supply agreement plus writing a share offer, Mike and I have had enough. So we have decided to “outsource” the domestic supply contracts and we are instructing Sandy Abrahams at Temple Bright, solicitors.

9 March 2015

Share offer launch so I’ve only now had time to put this up.

2015-03-03 10.16.05

Gentle reader, you may well not be that thrilled or moved by a picture of an underground biomass fuel silo nearing completion, and I can well understand that. Rachael and I however are dead chuffed. As she said in an email “Wow Kathy, that looks great! Everything is coming together. We just need to raise the money now.” That last comment is spot on – but with luck and a little bit more work the share offer will finally be out on Monday (8 March).

March 2015


2015-03- 12 Progress

The groundworks are nearing completion. What you can see are the buffer tanks in place on the floor of the boiler house. The boilers are due to arrive on Monday.

16 March 2015

I went down to the site to talk to Reeds (groundworks) with Bill about preliminary work which needs to be down on an area where we want to locate a new barn for storing woodchip. If we can organise delivery by what is called a ‘walking floor’ lorry we can reduce the price quite considerably as the loads which come this way are bigger than tipper loads so haulage costs are less.

Happily this visit coincided with the arrival at the site of the main biomass boilers in a pretty impressive lorry with its own hoist and a trailer containing the augers.

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The only unimpressive thing was the weather which was quite cold which was made all the more penetrating by the persistent light drizzle. Anyway I hung around long enough to see the boilers safely unloaded but then wimped out and left them to unload the augers.

The big beast comes off the trailer. This boiler will carry the main heat load for Sachel Court and the annexe

The big beast comes off the trailer. This boiler will carry the main heat load for Sachel Court and the annexe

28 March 2015

On site the boiler house now has a roof which has been felted and battened. No photos I’m afraid because my week has been disrupted by the disappearance for 48 hours of one of my cats which (thankfully) we retrieved from a neighbour’s garage yesterday morning. Yesterday it was also nice to receive an email from Colin Baines, the campaigns manager at Co-operatives UK, congratulating us on being the first of the winners of their Community Energy Challenge to reach share offer stage.

Bill Hicks, the Estates Manager at Springbok and one of the co-op directors, is now off on “holiday” for two weeks. He always takes these two weeks of the year off and he goes lambing! In fact, if you join the co-op and visit the site you will find that it is next to an apple orchard and occupied most months of the year by a group of ‘retired’ sheep. This is a very practical move as they help to keep the grass down in an area which is otherwise difficult to mow quickly. As Bill is a former shepherd they are in good hands.

Where sheep may safely graze (or sit)

Away from the site we are looking into which of the local wood chip suppliers we will contract with to supply the first year or so supply of wood chip. In due course we are hoping to procure the supply of some wood chip directly from local woodlands, but this takes a fair amount of time and organisation to sort out and will need a new barn for chip storage. Until we can sort this out the wood chip will come from sustainably managed woodland in Surrey or Sussex.

2 April 2015

Well, we’ve done it. The Springbok Sustainable Wood Heat Co-operative (affectionately known as “The SS Wood Heat” by its merchant marine friends) has raised its share offer target of £275,000. Well done and thank you team including everybody at Energy4All in Barrow for all your work and support. Welcome new co-op members. You look an interesting bunch and and we (the Directors) look forward to getting to know you.

In the meantime what progress on site? We have a splendid boiler house nearing completion and the contractors Douch Biomass will soon be moving their team on site to start work on the installation of the district heating system itself.

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That massive hole which featured extensively in my earlier posts is now invisible from the surface, A case of ‘what lies beneath’. In fact it is underneath and extends beyond the concrete slab you can see to the left of the boiler house.

Elsewhere the upheaval caused by the heat main installation is less evident and just needs the grass with moss to recover which Bill and Tom are confident will come back over the summer.

7 June 2015

The boiler installation has been progressing steadily on site. It has involved a lot of work and is a complex installation. However I felt that the slow and meticulous installation of lots and lots and lots of pipework, valves, insulation, tanks, computers, augers, hydraulics and other stuff, although very interesting when explained to me on my site visits, was probably not sufficiently gripping material for this blog.

So I am now delighted to report that the installation phase is finally complete (loud cheers heard off stage) and our contractors Douch Biomass are ready to start commissioning the systems this week. This has meant that the co-op has had to place an order for our very first load of wood chip from South East Wood Fuels. A few weeks ago four of the co-op directors paid a visit to the SEWF hub just south of Horsham (and thanks to Mike Chapman of SEWF for showing us around their operation). I didn’t actually get to see the arrival of the first load of wood chip at Care Ashore due to a very badly timed holiday, but fortunately Rachael was on hand to record this milestone which took place last Friday, 4 June, as you can see from the picture below.

5 June 2015 - first load of wood chip being delivered into underground fuel silo
5 June 2015 – first load of wood chip being delivered into underground fuel silo

Judging from the photo, the weather was clearly better last week where we were staying in France than it was in Alfold. At almost exactly the same time as this was being delivered (and by complete chance) Mike and I found ourselves in blistering heat in the town of Chaudes AÏgues in the southern Auvergne where water pours out of the ground at 82 degrees and has been used since before the time of the Romans to provide hot water and district heating for the town. Now how’s that for a coincidence?

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20 June 2015

During the course of the last week or so both boilers have been commissioned, which broadly means they have been tested to check they work. Applications for both have also been submitted to OFGEM for the Renewable Heat Incentive.

30 June 2015

It didn’t take long for the questions to start coming in from OFGEM on the RHI application. First off it was Stuart at OFGEM who wanted an independent metering report for the Sachel Court system. We had thought these are only required for systems with multiple meters but it seems that Sachel Court (aka Estate South) needs an ‘IMRR’ report even thought it only has about 2 or 3 meters. So that has been done and submitted to OFGEM.

The bungalows and almshouses on the Estate North system have been up and running since commissioning and all is well. However switching over to the wood chip biomass boiler dislodged a large amount of black gunge in the Cunard Mews heating system on the Care Ashore side so that has had to have a chemical cleanout. There was also an issue with stuff clogging the system up at Sachel Court so that was switched off for a while while this was sorted out (rest assured – they were not left without hot water!). This sort of thing increases the tension (for me anyway) as today is the last day before another RHI degression so I’ve just got back from the site having taken numerous photos of lots of meters to show heat is being pushed through and both the boiler systems are functional and working – just in case we need to show them to OFGEM.

12 July 2015

We are very aware that we are on a learning curve, everything is very new. We had been warned that wood chip can be problematic and although we have a good quality supplier Douch have still expressed concern over the size of some of the chips that had gathered on top of the rota sweep head from the latest loads. Also although there is no problem with moisture content load sizes seem to vary. We are looking into this and keeping an eye on it.

Meanwhile the RHI applications are demanding a lot of time. When you walk around them Sachel Court and Radcliffe house are obviously in multiple occupation – they have a bar, communal facilities, locked doors to individual flats, emergency staircases, etc – but they also have a single domestic rating bill and this is the first thing OFGEM look at when determining whether you are eligible for non-domestic RHI. So we are in the process of completing OFGEMs ‘non-domestic questionnaire’ which means providing a comprehensive report to OFGEM complete with photos describing the facilities at Sachel Court and Radcliffe House in detail. While time consuming it has been interesting for me to have a proper look around and see behind the scenes into places like the kitchen………

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18 July 2015

Our first AGM, held in a marquee on the estate lent to us by Care Ashore. Trevor Goacher, CEO of the charity, was guest speaker. Nick and Louise Douch (who as well as being the contractors are members of the co-op) gave a guided tour of the boiler house and then Tom Parker took us on butterfly walk through local woodlands. A good time was had by all.


Biomass Supporters


Members looking at the wood chip storage

21 August 2015

So far August has been mainly memorable for problems. The agitator arm broke about a week ago just after a large load of chip arrived so it is difficult to view.

Meanwhile the RHI applications continue to cause headaches. We have eventually completed and submitted a full report explaining Sachel Court’s multiple occupancy status but the RHI officials are querying periods in June about the time we commissioned because boiler readings are low. This is in part because they were commissioned and then at various points had to be switched off again for chemical cleaning etc. More questions keep coming through on both systems and its a bit like sitting an exam although it is not an exam where 70% is enough to pass, you need 100%. Every email from OFGEM ends with the words “the date for any RHI payments to start – and the applicable tariff level – cannot be set earlier than the date your application is ‘properly made’ ………A ‘properly made’ application should include all information we ask for in the application form to a suitable standard, to enable us to make a decision on the eligibility of your installation.” Which always makes me wonder whether they are going to turn around and say we didn’t make the application properly in June, which would mean we are subjected to the degression in RHI on 1 July after all.

30 September 2015

After many, many more questions from OFGEM during September, today we received a letter accrediting the boiler serving the bungalows, houses, maisonettes and Cunard Mews for RHI with effect from mid-June. Huge sighs of relief all round. One down, one to go.

However I also receive an email from Bill telling me that the sweeper auger in the fuel silo has broken again and this time it resulted in a failure to deliver fuel to one boiler which caused overheating and the soaking sprinkler to cut in to cool the boiler down. This worked which means that we have unintentionally tested the safety systems (looking on the bright side) but we can’t see yet what the problem is with the auger because if is covered with wood chip. While Douch are very good at responding to these call outs I would really rather it wasn’t necessary!

5 October 2015

From today we have to show that all wood we use in the boilers is sustainably sourced in accordance with new OFGEM regulations so we need to retain a record of all the fuel used in the boiler and keep copies of the invoices to demonstrate fuel use and sustainability. That is fine while we are using a local commercial supplier on the biomass suppliers list, but I can’t help feeling it is going to cause complications when we attempt to switch over to some degree of self supply i.e. the co-op buys whole wood from local woodland owners and we chip it ourselves.

15 October 2015

The wood chip level now having dropped to a point where the relevant parts could be seen and accessed, Douch came out to replace all the agitator parts. Bill Hicks said the damage had to be seen to be believed, although no real idea what has caused it but he thinks one arm of the agitator possibly got caught in the housing and then the power of the motor just bent everything. But as he said “hopefully we will be back on chips before lunch”.

22 October 2015

The heating has only just been put on for the winter in Sachel Court (which is a fairly well insulated building) but it caused a drop in the hot water temperature by 10 degrees. Douch came out and said the boiler blender needs “tweaking” which involves computer software which they will come back to do. While everything else has been going on we have also been keeping an eye on heat losses. These were higher than anticipated during the summer on the co-op side of the bungalow system and we appear to have two loops which call for heat continuously even when not required, That needs sorting out as apart from being a waste of energy, under the RHI the co-op (quite rightly) does not get paid for heat losses between the boilers and the heat meters in the residential premises. Cost estimates for these works are being prepared.

28 October 2015

Whoopee! RHI accreditation received for the second boiler while Mike and I are on holiday in Spain.
This is the good news we receive while on holiday. We also get an email from the Treasury as the Government has announced the removal of tax reliefs called EIS and SEIS on 5 weeks notice. We can hardly believe our eyes, except that nothing good has come out of this Government as far as the community energy sector is concerned since the election. However this is about the worst announcement so far from this Government as it represents a complete betrayal of previous statements including one in the March Budget Statement that the community energy sector would receive at least 6 months notice of removal of EIS.
These changes could well have an impact on the SS Wood Heat as we had been thinking of doing a further share offer to raise money for the wood chip barn which has an estimated cost of 50k which we doubt we can raise without offering tax relief.

23 November 2015

Another milestone – receipt by the SS Wood Heat of our first remittance income from the RHI for the boiler serving ‘Estate North’ which was the first to be accredited back in September. Remarkably, and rather to our surprise given Rachael’s experience with the Feed in Tariff where the amounts are often wrong, we agree with their basis of calculation and that their calculations are correct.

4 December 2015

In an effort to drive forward what I’ll call “the barn project” John Malone, the Development Director for Energy4All, paid us his first visit yesterday as we need his project management skills to get this off the ground.  He was shown around by Bill and myself and  then an added bonus was lunch in the Residents’ dining room.   Tom Parker joined us in the afternoon and we adjourned to the site of the proposed barn (photo below). We spent a good 40 minutes discussing the barn as we want to be able to switch to deliveries from so-called “walking floor lorries” which bring in about three times the quantity of one tipped load of chip which will save quite a lot of money in transportation costs.


Proposed site for Woodchip Barn

18 December 2015

It is unseasonally warm. Primroses are in flower, there is some blossom on the trees but at the Springbok Co-op we really want to see some cold weather as the absence of cold weather is making it extremely difficult to establish the annual woodchip requirement in a “typical” year.  We estimated around 250 tons of dry chip was required per annum based on the oil consumption on the estate in a more ‘typical’ winter but due to the unseasonally warm winter so far  we still don’t really know whether that is going to prove to be the right amount, or not.   It also makes sizing of the woodchip barn (see previous post) quite problematic. However having said that it would now be more convenient operationally if any cold snap could wait until after the Christmas break as woodchip delivery has to be planned in advance to cover the holiday while the delivery drivers take their own holiday.    So we are stocking up on wood chip and oil for the backup boilers,  just in case the weather reverts to normal.