1. Community
October 23, 2015updated 29 Jul 2021 11:48am

Community solar energy has been a huge British success story. The government wants to cut it

By Alice Bell

Britain’s first solar home turned 20 this summer. The son of the academic who first who took this trailblazing step got called “solar panel boy” at school.

But we’ve come along way in those two decades. Solar isn’t weird any more. According to last year’s annual Energy Statement to parliament, the average UK street now has two solar homes.

Britain might not be known for its sunshine, but solar power in the UK has expanded rapidly in recent years. A record amount of solar power was added to the world’s grids in 2014, with Britain leading solar expansion in Europe. By the end of 2014, there were almost five gigawatts of solar photovoltaic panels installed in the UK, up from 2.8GW at the end of 2013.

The growth has been massive – but the current government seem intent in stopping it. It’s proposed an 87 per cent cut to the solar feed-in-tariff, which many fear will kill off the solar industry all together.

It hasn’t been making as many headlines as steel, but four UK solar companies went bust this month. That’s just the tip of the speedily-melting iceberg, too. The Solar Trade Association estimate 27,000 of the UK’s 35,000 solar jobs are at risk if proposed cuts to support for renewable energy go ahead. As a report published by Greenpeace this week also highlighted, the cuts also threaten £127m of investment in community energy.

We often associate solar panels with people rich enough to own their own roof (and with money to spare to cover it with solar panels). Or perhaps we think of waves of rural solar farms: pretty, perhaps, but not exactly part of the cityscape.

Yet one of the most exciting – but under-reported – areas of growth in British solar has been our burgeoning community energy sector, much of which happens in cities. By clubbing together, urban communities have been transforming otherwise dormant, unused roof-top space into mini power stations.

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Take Hackney Energy for example: its installation on Banister House is the largest community owned solar project on social housing in the UK. It’s £40,000 in a community fund that goes into hiring solar interns from the estate. All paid London Living Wage, the interns get work experience and construction certification.

In Greater Manchester, St John’s church, Old Trafford, have used their community solar project to fund a drop-in food bank for asylum seekers and beehives for local allotments. They wanted to extend this to work with a local housing association on measures to address fuel poverty in the area. The cuts threaten that.  

Move south a bit, and Bristol Energy Co-op have raised £250,000 from their local community to put solar on buildings in the most deprived areas of the city. Everything from adult education centres to boxing clubs are topped with solar. And all of it is owned by 200+ local investors, not fat cats with offshore bank accounts. Again, the proposed cuts threaten to halt this project, but the co-op still hopes to raise finance to extend rooftop solar on community buildings, and install two larger community solar farms.

Between them, the 82 community energy projects Greenpeace spoke to as part of its recent research have almost 11,000 members. Collectively they’ve delivered 30MW of renewable energy capacity in 175 separate schemes.

Moreover, they had plans to deliver 143MW of capacity in 448 new schemes. Together, those groups had secured £5m worth of voluntary professional skills and 88 years of voluntary time. They’d leveraged £50m in private investment, and generated over £45m of revenue to their local economies.

Community energy isn’t a hobby. It’s a vibrant, thriving sector that has the potentially to really shake up how we own and engage with energy in the UK. It’s more than pulling its weight, and it had massive plans which are now under threat.

But it’s not too late. The cuts are officially still under consultation, and people have until Friday night to respond. Tens of thousands of people have already had their say on the topic, directly to the Department of Energy and Climate Change or using our portal. Al Gore, Boris Johnson, the CBI and the Chief Scientist to the United Nations Environment Programme have all criticised the policy too. Why not join them?

Alice Bell is a former academic and journalist, specialising in the politics of science and technology. She currently works in campaigns for climate change charity, 10:10.

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