You’d expect an “Energy Shop” located on a main shopping street to be in the business of selling energy, but you’d be wrong. It’s WREN’s public face in Wadebridge, the place to go for advice and help on renewables and energy efficiency, staffed by volunteers. But what actually happens inside? I went to see.

I arrive at a few minutes before eleven, the formal opening time, and already a customer is waiting outside. Lizzy-Jane, one of the WREN directors and today’s duty volunteer, opens the door, welcoming the man and saying hello to me. He has a variety of questions about reducing his energy usage and costs, including fitting solar PV, replacing his old boiler with a new combi and doing something about his oil-fired Raeburn. He seems clued up about the technology, but unclear about the various schemes and assistance such as feed in tariffs (FiTs) and Green Deal, and what the financial implications are. Lizzy-Jane pulls open a ring-binder and finds the current FiTs, but the man wants to know what that means in real money. A 4kW installation organised through WREN costs about £6,400. I am able to chip in with the fact that my own 3.9kW east-facing system has produced about 6,000 kWh in the 18 months or so since installation, from which we calculate approximate returns. Lizzy-Jane also suggests using biomass for generating heat – wood pellets fed into the boiler from a hopper – which she herself uses. He leaves his name and address for a follow-up contact with Jerry, the technical director. He says that what he likes about the Energy Shop is getting impartial advice, not high-pressure sales. Lizzy-Jane makes it clear that WREN gets a “finder’s fee” for introducing people to the Solar PV installers and other suppliers, but he doesn’t mind that.

The shop is L-shaped. The front part is for displays and leaflets, with a customer reception desk and a couple of chairs. The main display at the moment is of the Community Fund grant recipients. Behind the reception desk is the second desk, used by Dominic (an intern) and others for admin work. There is a sink unit and tea and coffee making apparatus, by which I mean a kettle, mugs and spoons, not an espresso machine. Round the corner of the ‘L’ is an office area with a desk and PC, used primarily by the operations manager, Paul, who is away at the moment. I take over the admin desk and look through the ring-binder, which is a guide for volunteers staffing the shop. Tony, another director, pops into the shop for a while and then out again.

At about half past twelve another customer comes in. She is not sure what she is looking for, but is building an annex to a house and wants to design energy efficiency into it. Lizzy-Jane is able to talk about insulation, heat exchangers coupled with under-floor heating, and wood-burners, as well as solar PV.

Stephen, the chairman, brings in the Energy Futures exhibition posters and some display screens. Tim Jones of the Wadebridge Dementia Action Alliance, one of the recipients of a Community Fund grant, calls in to see Lizzy-Jane and while he is still there, a young couple come in and look at the displays and leaflets.

When Tim goes, they sit down and explain that they have a problem with very high electricity bills. They live in an old mill, and just as I’m expecting a story of draughts and poor insulation, they go off on a different tack entirely. They used to buy electricity on a pay-as-you-go meter; then they moved to monthly direct debit (sensible, as it should be a lower tariff) but their payments shot up enormously. We advise them to look at their bills, see if they have a rising credit balance and if so, phone the electricity company and get it back. I’m surprised that they don’t seem to know that any overpayment is still their money and doesn’t belong to the company, but the company isn’t in a hurry to tell them. (This is why places that give advice, like the Energy Shop, are needed.) They also ask about micro-hydro power, which they are considering together with a couple of neighbours, since they have a stream conveniently to hand (to do with the old mill). WREN doesn’t have expertise in this area of renewable energy, so cannot help them directly.

Lizzy-Jane realises that she hasn’t put out the street sign and does so. She says that she was wanting to set up the Energy Futures posters in the shop, but she has been too busy during the morning and there isn’t much time now, so I offer to help. But first, I fetch a couple of pasties for lunch.

We take down the Community Fund posters. I decide my fingernails won’t stand up to repeated removal of drawing pins and find a knife in the cutlery tray to use instead. Someone comes into the shop to collect 25 Wrens due to her for insulating her house. Lizzy-Jane has to hunt through a list to verify this, which takes some time – it turns out they have been due for over a year.

Lizzy-Jane puts up a screen along one wall. I, with much less skill, erect another behind the customer desk. This also screens off the back of the shop, plunging it into darkness – or would do if not for the array of spotlights in the ceiling. The spotlights are LEDs, of about 5 watts, all different, except for a solitary conventional halogen lamp, so that people coming in can see the comparison. (The first LED lamp I bought a few years ago was only 1 watt, enough to see that the light was on but not much more. It put me off LEDs, so I find the display here useful.) I become adept at sticking strips of velcro to the posters to secure them to the screens. By three o’clock the posters are up and voting boxes together with green and red counters for voting yes or no to five proposals (as at the the original exhibition) are in place. Energy Futures lives again! (Sorry, Community Fund.)

Three o’clock is closing time for the Energy Shop. It has, apparently, been a busy day and I have had the chance to see a variety of the things that WREN does there.

“Could hardly have planned it better,” says Lizzy-Jane.


These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of WREN.