1. Social
March 16, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 11:47am

Community solar can save money, save the planet, and build social capital, all at the same time

By Alice Bell

The United Estates of Wythenshawe is an unusual place. It’s a gym inside an old church on one of Europe’s largest council estates, just north of Manchester Airport. It still runs family Methodist services in the chapel on Sunday mornings, but now there are boxing classes too. And a dance studio. And a sound recording suite. Not to mention the children’s play area, cinema, security company, white goods repair service, gardening business, therapy rooms and community bakery.

You can drop by to use the weights, to sort getting your windows cleaned, have a go at cheerleading, get a massage, use the photocopier, or just have a brew, a biscuit and bit of a natter.

On top of all that, this year, UEW is hoping to become a power station too.

It’s not the first in the area. Back in summer 2013, Millgate Arts Centre, Moss Brook Growers, Ellenroad Steam Museum and Mellor Country House all installed solar panels or biomass. St John’s Sunshine, a project of 39 solar panels based in a church in Old Trafford, was set up in 2012. Not only does it cut carbon and save money on electricity bills: the profits have been used to set up ‘‘sunshine grants’, funding drop-in food bank for asylum seekers, beehives for a local allotment and an “Open Gardens Day” to encourage local people to meet their neighbours.

St John’s is so keen on solar that it’s signed up for a new project too. It’s joining forces with other local organisations – the United Estates, Disability Stockport, Deeplish Community Centre, Hulme Community Garden Centre, 120 year old Manchester Settlement, and several other community centres, churches or cafes in the area – to build a network of rooftop solar power. In all, the network should one day stretch to 700 solar panels.

These places aren’t your usual power stations, granted. Nor will they go near meeting the power needs of the whole community.

But it’s a key step towards improving our current sclerotic energy system, which continues to drag its heels when it comes to challenges of fuel poverty and climate change. It’s a step towards low carbon, more democratic energy. Moreover, it’s a step which engages people with energy, so they are better placed to ramp up their ambition.

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The idea’s pretty simple. As Community Energy Greater Manchester, the groups all fundraise for solar panels in the community: you can donate and “sponsor a solar panel” online, or wait a few months and buy shares. They plan to be installed, plugged into the grid and generating electricity for the autumn.

The group’s fundraising model builds on the national Solar Schools programme which, since 2011, has helped over 80 schools turn their rooftops into mini solar power stations. The schools get a significant cut in their electricity bills and can sell excess electricity to the grid, making significant carbon savings in the process, too.

But the beauty of Solar Schools is not just that it’s saving both money and the planet: the process of fundraising helps engage people with energy issues, and provides opportunities to deepen relationships with their local communities as well.

So United Estates, Disability Stockport and the others will come out of the process with more than just some shiny new solar panels. The project will feed into their everyday work of building social capital in the area. It’s an extension of what they’re doing already – a way for people to come together to make their world a bit better.

The Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisations is also hoping to build on the project, to create a skilled network of groups across the region, to work together to address energy efficiency and fuel poverty in their communities. Social capital can, done right, build more social capital – and be focused to a whole host of new challenges.

Wythenshawe was one of the spots Shameless was filmed. It also became infamous for a photo, back in February 2007, of a teenager miming a gun gesture at David Cameron (cue a spate of “who’s hugging the hoodie now?” headlines) – hardly the usual face of renewable energy.

But there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be able to take up the benefits of solar power, and by doing so, take a role in the low carbon revolution politicians and business leaders keep going on about.

There’s a lot of ink spilled about the need for a grand new industrial revolution to tackle climate change, especially when areas like Greater Manchester are involved. But revolutions can come in a range of hues. There’s a very possible green future which still sees energy controlled by relatively small elite, with inequality when it comes to accessing heat, light, transport or power to fuel our communications tech.

Community energy projects like these offer a radically positive blueprint for the future: one in which we don’t just shift away from carbon, but find ways to redistribute control of the energy system, too.

Alice Bell is a writer, researcher and campaigner, specialising in the politics of science and technology. She’ll be speaking at FutureEverything Festival in Manchester on Thursday 31 March.

You can find out more about the festival, which runs from Wednesday 30 March to Saturday 2 April, here.

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