architecture corporate responsibility

From coal power station to sustainable homes

Engie is a French utility company, the fourth largest in Europe. It is one of several utility companies to announce that it is to sell off its fossil fuel power stations and invest in renewable energy instead. It sold off its gas plants in Britain in 2017, and closed down the Rugeley coal power station the year before that.

The company had planned to sell the Rugeley site, but then changed its mind. Chief Exectutive Wilfrid Petrie says that they are “closing down our coal power plant and, instead of selling off the land, we’ve decided to regenerate it ourselves.” They plan to build 2,000 homes to high efficiency standards, using solar power and battery storage, and electric heat pumps.

As well as rooftop solar and domestic batteries, the development will also have a solar farm nearby and a communal power storage plant to maintain supply, though it won’t aim for full self-sufficiency. Further solar panels will float on the lake at one end of the site.

There are a couple of reasons to mention this project. First, it’s a symbolic example of how coal power is being retired and replaced by cleaner, greener technologies. It shows how distributed energy is taking over from large centralised power plants. And in an age of climate breakdown there are few things as beautiful as a coal power station being demolished.

Secondly, the redevelopment is being done through a community planning process, the kind described in the book 20/20 Visions, that I reviewed recently. In fact, the author of that book, Charles Campion, is involved at Rugeley. Local residents are invited to a community planning weekend where Engie and its architects and urban planners will work with participants to draw up a vision for the site. It happens at the end of November and I look forward to seeing what comes out it.

Community planning processes are still quite rare, but they are important in giving ordinary people a say in local developments. They create places that people are proud of and invested in, and they avoid the problem of external profit-driven developers imposing their ideas on a place. For developers, it’s a way of listening, responding to local needs, and creating a more appropriate development that is less likely to be opposed when it gets to planning permission.

Engie gets this, and would like to run similar developments on other former industrial sites: “The proposed redevelopment of Rugeley also aligns with ENGIE’s wider strategy to assist local authorities, cities and communities with placemaking. ENGIE works alongside them to shape the future use of their estates and public spaces – supporting with planning, design and management – to improve the lives of those who use them.”

If you’re at all involved in development or local planning scrutiny, it’s well worth looking into community planning processes and seeing if you can use them.

3 comments

  1. Power stations are built where there is a plentiful supply of cooling water and Rugeley is close to the Trent. I hope it is not on the flood plain.

    If it is, it might be better not to build on the land.

    1. A good point. Rugeley has been flooded by the river Trent in the past, and flood defences have been installed to protect the town centre. Presumably the flood risk would have been assessed when the power station was built, but that whole question will need to be examined.

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