East Ayrshire Council’s flagship £24.5m CoRE renewable energy project in Cumnock is ‘unaffordable’ as it stands, authority bosses have admitted.

The impact of the pandemic, Brexit and inflation has hit the project hard, forcing the council into a rethink of its approach.

Cabinet will be told that the project faces significant revision to ensure it is both viable and meets the requirements of the council. This follows a ‘pause’ in the project in 2022.

In a report to the authority's cabinet, David McDowall, EAC's head of economic growth, communities and economy, says that the original ‘high specification’ design may be more than needed - and that the project can still achieve its goal, even if it has to be downgraded to be made affordable.

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The revised plan places increased importance on the benefits it could have on supporting local communities and, in the longer term, the whole country.

The project has been on hold for more than a year, following the approval of plans for a site at Knockroon, outside Cumnock.

It secured funding, via the Ayrshire Growth Deal, of £17m from the UK Government, together with £7.5m of East Ayrshire Council.

The project seeks to develop and demonstrate how renewable energy can work to support rural towns and villages achieve net zero carbon targets, and make communities ‘better connected, healthier and improve the standard of living through a just transition, whilst supporting the creation of long-term sustainable jobs’.

The CoRE project was set out to create an innovation centre costing around £16m with a programme of ‘demonstrator projects’ coming in at another £8.5m.

In his report, Mr McDowall says: “The centre and demonstrator projects will aim to overcome a range of technical challenges that currently prevent the harnessing of local energy generation and storage.

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“The CoRE project will act as a catalyst in helping the council reach its target of becoming net zero by 2030 and contribute to the national target of achieving net zero by 2045.

“Along with supporting the development and delivery of energy technologies, the project will also provide a route map for other locations in Scotland and the UK to transition rural communities to net zero.

“It will also provide the infrastructure to enable individuals to develop and thrive whilst supporting local communities.”

While an outline business case was approved by the council in March 2022, it cannot access government money until a full business case has been agreed.

Having received planning permission for the site in June 2022, the council decided to ‘pause’ the project.

Mr McDowall’s report continues: “Over the last two to three years, Ayrshire has experienced unprecedented challenges through the COVID-19 pandemic, cost of living crisis and rising inflation.”

Inflation, particularly in regard to construction costs, has been one of the biggest issues for councils.

The report states: “Due to rising construction inflation and higher than expected interest rates, the current centre design is now at a point where it is unaffordable.

“The current specification of the building is very specialist in nature and it is now recognised by the project team, that this high specification may not be required.

“The project team have taken the opportunity to reflect, refocus and reset the vision, aims and objectives of the programme.

“It is intended that CoRE will act as a catalyst to provide an employability pipeline, creating long-term sustainable jobs, to ensure that there is a skilled workforce ready to support the businesses, delivering on renewable technologies and installations.

“Work, training and apprenticeship programmes will be developed in collaboration with academic partners, to ensure our local communities can take advantage of the economic benefits of the net-zero transition."

Cumnock Chronicle: The Knockroon site will be home to the CoRE project’s ‘centre of excellence’The Knockroon site will be home to the CoRE project’s ‘centre of excellence’ (Image: NQ Archive)

The report adds that the demonstrator projects will ‘demystify’ carbon reduction technologies and  provide practical examples of how communities can use them effectively.

Mr McDowall says there is also an opportunity for the scheme within the recently launched Ayrshire Economic Strategy.

He states: “The rural nature of East Ayrshire differentiates CoRE from many other net zero projects being delivered in the UK.

“Within East Ayrshire, 57 per cent of the population live within small towns/rural areas and there are a number of challenges faced by these communities.”

These include:

  • Households that are ‘off grid’ and rely on alternative fuel sources
  • Higher levels of fuel poverty
  • Distance from key services and employment requires more fuel for cars
  • Older housing which is less energy efficient
  • Poorer public transport

He added: “The CoRE project provides an opportunity to regenerate the rural area and reuse the built and natural assets to create sustainable jobs and grow local businesses while putting Ayrshire and our communities at the heart of the net zero transition.”

The report says that the next step is the secondment of Professor Jonathan Lawrence from the University of the West of Scotland for 12 months.

It says: “The secondment will provide valuable technical expertise and industry knowledge which we do not currently have within the Council as well as access to equipment held by UWS."

A partnership board and steering group will also be set up.

The cabinet will consider the report on Wednesday, October 4.