Grey skies, wind, rain and no sign of the sun. That’s the British Winter, most of the Autumn, much of the Spring, and a good deal of the Summer too! But, regardless of the climate, there is clearly enough sunshine for solar energy to thrive, and in recent years the UK has witnessed an unprecedented growth in community solar power installations.
Government schemes such as the renewable heat incentive and the feed-in tariff, mean that schools, not-for-profit groups, and any community organization with some roof space at their disposal can benefit from solar installation and see a good return on their investment.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change recently updated regulations, making it easier for non-domestic buildings to opt for solar power. Coupled with the reduced cost of solar panels, components, and installation, this makes the whole process less complicated and more financially viable for community groups to go solar.
Power to the People
Last year, the world’s largest community solar farm was built in Wiltshire as part of an inclusive project: Local residents were involved in the entire process and invited to buy shares.
This is a great example of how communities can engage, collaborate, and be proactive, with the ultimate aim of steering their own energy ship. UK organisations like The Transition Network and Zero Carbon Britain are empowering communities to take control over the future of local low-carbon energy generation. By supporting local groups to campaign for and install solar, these kinds of initiatives are dedicated to enabling a community-led renewable energy revolution across the country.
Of the renewable energy technologies available, solar is one of the most accessible routes to making low-carbon power. This positive vision of an energy-progressive society free from fossil fuels is not an impossible dream. From housing associations, to not-for-profit groups, and local businesses, the growing number of community solar projects in Britain is testament to its feasibility. And what better way to start the revolution than by harnessing the enthusiasm of youth.
Nurturing a Green Generation
The installation of solar panels on the roof of a school is a great way to educate children about the benefits of sustainable energy and the effects of our energy use on the planet. The word is spreading, and an increasing number of UK schools are making the switch to solar power. Teachers can use the solar PV system as a tool in lessons to demonstrate how renewable energy works in practise, not just in theory.
Earlier this year, Lewes Priory School in East Sussex, in the South East of England, installed a solar PV system generating in excess of 35,000 kWh of solar electricity a year. Not only will this energy source reduce their carbon emissions considerably, it will also slash the school’s energy bills by an estimated £3,000. In term time, the energy is used by the school, and in the holidays, it is fed back into the National Grid.
The school is not new to eco considerations and had already adopted green habits with in-school recycling schemes and green workshops. It’s impressive that the driving force behind the successful campaign for solar was the pupil-led Eco Group. Eco Group commandeered the support of Ovesco, a not-for-profit energy community company, and Southern Solar, a local installation company, and their efforts paid off.
“We wrote a letter to OVESCO when we first heard about the scheme,” says pupil Ayo Okojie, a member of the Eco Group. “We got the idea because some of us have solar panels installed on our homes, and we thought it would be great if the school could have them, too.”
OVESCO Director Dirk Campbell says,
Young people are acutely aware of the issues facing the environment, and it’s important for them to know the older generations are taking action to safeguard their future. We are delighted that the students at the school have shown so much enthusiasm for the project.
Like many head teachers, Tony Smith, the head at Lewes Priory School, is keen to raise awareness about environmental issues. He is also committed to helping the school run more economically.
Our vision for the school was to become more sustainable and community-involved; our pupils really embraced the idea and were keen to do something bigger… At the same time the school was under pressure to reduce costs, and I struggled to see how we could improve efficiency with little funds. In return for our roof space, the solar installation will reduce our energy costs while supporting a very worthwhile community initiative.
Strength in Numbers
These kinds of community initiatives and projects can only succeed when local people and groups pull together with a common good cause in mind.
Prashant Vaze, Chief Economist of Consumer Focus and author of Repowering Communities and the Economical Environmentalist, believes that one of the biggest obstacles to low carbon technologies is the opposition of vocal minorities who obstruct planning.
Vaze makes the pertinent point that technology and policy alone are not enough to bring about sustainable energy use, but that community often means compromise and a willingness to adjust to new ways and new behaviours.
Writing on the Green Alliance Blog, Vaze says, “Suspicious communities can be turned into ardent supporters if they can be taken through the journey themselves.… Moving to a sustainable energy system is about change. Not just change in the way we use energy, but a change in how communities make decisions. Through courting people’s enthusiasm for making a difference, for making things better, this change can be a seen as a virtue and not a burden.”
Indeed, for those of us who may not have the kind of disposal income to afford solar panels on our own property, community solar is an alternative way to be involved in generating carbon-free power, and sharing in a local sustainable energy system. There’s no better time to begin a campaign in your neighbourhood for a community owned solar project than right now. In the not too distant future, with our energy needs increasing, and our fossil fuels decreasing fast, it might be something we will all have to rely on.
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Tara Gould writes for www.southernsolar.co.uk and is a freelance writer covering all things sustainable and ethical, from renewable energy to natural building to eco weddings to electric vehicles….