community solar energy
Solar energy will give a breathing space for humanity

Bristol has a reputation for green activism, and will be European Green Capital in 2015.  Local mayor George Ferguson is a local energy innovator and community activist, having put 31Kw of solar panels on a former Tobacco Factory which he renovated and turned into a lively arts and community centre. 

The Government’s recently published Community Energy Strategy has been eagerly anticipated by the growing number of community energy groups.  It will be interesting to see the feedback over coming months, because from a community energy perspective it appears there is great indecision going on in Whitehall.

One side looks very positive for our communities – Greg Barker wants more competition amongst energy providers – for the Big 6 to become 60,000.  And Ed Davey would like us to have 20 Gigawatts of solar power by 2020, which may sound ambitious, but would bring just over half way to where Germany is already – with 35.5GW of solar Photovoltaics up and running.

On the other hand we have warnings that we’re running out of generating capacity as old fossil power plants close, with threats of blackouts – and the apparent certainty of rising prices.  In response, the government has announced a new generation of nuclear power stations and seemingly encouraging a free-for-all for communities to ‘get on board’ for shale-oil ‘fracking’.  Is this disruptive change, or more business-as-usual.  What’s really going on?  Does the government want to encourage communities or exploit and destroy them?

Community energy is mushrooming in the UK, running fast to catch up with Europe, where community renewables are a major feature in the emerging new energy economy.  The UK is already home to Westmill, the largest community- owned solar farm in the world.  Solar energy has been growing steadily around the world for over 30 years, averaging a growth rate of over 40% – doubling every two years.  And solar only has to double 7 more times to supply 100% of world energy needs, that is by 2027.

This really would be disruptive change, but in the solar price collapse of 2012, when a large number of solar companies went under, a fair number of were able to build and make a profit at vastly lowered prices, and redoubled production as well.  According to Applied Materials, suppliers of technology to manufacturers, during 2012 solar PV became cheaper than grid electricity for 98% of the world’s population – something that hadn’t been expected until 2020.  And the rate of growth of solar PV grew another notch, by up to 60%.

Can anything to be learned from Bristol’s example?  Bristol has enough groups involved in energy activism that they have joined forces, and Bristol Energy Network last year published its own Community Strategy for Energy .  Bristol’s solar enthusiasts also launched Bristol Solar City during Bristol’s Big Green Week last year, which aims for Greater Bristol to install 1GW of solar PV by 2020, and to deliver clean green jobs while putting Bristol on-track to having the cheapest energy in the UK.  That’s a £1Bn investment, and thousands of jobs.

Most community energy initiatives have communities clubbing together in co-op share issues to purchase renewable resources – solar farms, wind farms, community hydro power.  In most cases the investors get a return from Feed in Tariffs and selling electricity to the grid, or give the electricity to community centres.  In Bristol, a start-up community power initiative, Bristol Power Co-op has been trying a more radical model, using community share issues to put solar panels directly on people’s homes, in a project called Streets of Solar.

Bristol’s has an online solar map which people can use to assess their own roof’s suitability for solar.  It shows room for 700Mw of solar on Bristol City roofs, and as much more again in the wider Bristol metropolitan region.  This has lead to this initiative to provide Bristol’s electricity from the city’s rooftops, and to directly address fuel poverty.  Householders join the co-op by putting their roofs in the scheme, and get free electricity – cutting fuel bills by as much as 40%. Shareholder members put up the capital, and get their shares repaid from Feed in Tariffs.

This is quite a bold experiment, currently limited in scope to 23 community homes in Lockleaze, a Bristol council ward with significant unemployment and fuel poverty.  But it proves that ordinary people can be interested in renewables, especially when they benefit directly.  Significant expansion is planned, along with partnerships that will help with energy efficiency measures, and a possible energy company deal to allow people to buy the energy they still need from the grid at a discount, funded by their own daytime surpluses.

Let’s hope this community based energy strategy will act to help the growth of community owned energy.  The shift from state owned energy to corporate controlled energy is just the first step in a revolution that inevitably leads to community and individually owned energy production, enabled by high-tech energy trading through smart grids.  A virtuous spiral becomes inevitable once solar passes Grid Parity, which will see lowering energy prices which directly benefit end users.

In decades, computing went from mainframes, to minicomputers, PCs, smartphones and tablets.  Accelerated by our the high-tech communication infrastructure we’ll shift from ‘mainframe energy’ (the Big 6) to minis (solar and wind farms), then community and personal energy.  DECC’s Renewable Energy Pathways 2050 calculator shows that year as the earliest we could have 100% renewable energy.  But official forecasts can’t stop exponential growth, and with high tech smart grids we may well get 100% of our energy from the sun by 2027.

How could this affect the nuclear option?  The strike price of around £90/Megawatt hour being guaranteed by the government for 35 years to pay for nuclear electricity from Hinkley C is very generous.  At maximum production of 3.3Gw, this adds up to over £80Bn paid in wholesale electricity prices for a £16Bn nuclear installation.  Consumers presumably would pay double for this electricity, or around £160Bn.  As a comparison guide, this would be enough to provide 5Kw or so of solar energy, plus some battery storage, to every home in the UK.

Can we assume that a geometric forecast for solar growth would prevent a government wasting billions on nuclear?  They’ll say they have to keep options open.   But consumers have the power to put the energy supply in their own hands, and the government has the choice to help this or hinder it, to accelerate or to resist.  In Kenya, the government says they are aiming for over 50% solar electricity by 2016  which is quite astonishing, and they say it will reduce electricity prices by up to 80%.  Surely we have to check out these numbers?

Bristol’s solar initiatives were spurred by mutual trade visits with Hannover – Bristols twin city, and home of the Hannover Fair, a showcase of renewable technologies.  In 2010 a single solar wholesaler in Hannover shipped 60 Mw of solar PV – more than the UK had installed to date.  In 2011, the year when the UK launched Feed in tariffs for solar, we already knew that German wholesale prices for domestic PV kits were between a half and a third of UK retail solar prices.  Clearly we were headed for rapid change – now we’re in the midst of it.

The legacy energy industry can be forgiven for wanting to hang on to its profits and for not wanting its huge reserves of fossil fuels to be revalued closer to zero.  Yet if these ‘reserves’ were all burned to carbon dioxide, we’ll have massively damaged on the planet.  Solar energy – and other complementary renewables like hydrogen as a storage medium – offers the potential for a very low cost transition to a clean energy future, with a massive reduction in extraction of valuable resources from a depleted earth, giving breathing space for humanity.

David Saunders is Managing Director of Bristol Power CIC, the project management company for the “Streets of Solar” project, owned by Bristol Power Co-op

Related Articles:

Surf Solar Energy Wave for Manufacturing Jobs Growth

Streets of Solar’s Virtuous Spiral, Energy in People’s Hands
Share this:
Tagged on: