Let's go solar: How communities make energy together

Panel games: Brian Milligan reports on community solar energy projects

Sizzling temperatures across the UK make most of us think of barbecues, swimming or sun-tan lotion.

But in part of south London, the thoughts of Agamemnon Otero are on the kilowatt hours being generated on local rooftops.

"It's a great summer to install solar panels," he says.

"On a day like today, in the full sun, we'll be creating more energy than all these buildings need."

But his enthusiasm is not only a result of Britain's soaring temperatures.

A series of government incentives is making the summer of 2013 a prime time for communities to get together to make renewable energy.

And energy is the least of it.

Schools, churches and sports clubs are not only saving money; they're creating jobs and skills, and alleviating fuel poverty too.

Start Quote

It is not power to the people; it's power to, for and by the people.”

End Quote Agamemnon Otero Brixton Energy
Benefits

On top of a tower block in Brixton, half a dozen young men and women are helping to install an array of solar panels.

They are all residents on the estate, and they are being paid for the skills they are acquiring.

This is the third such project that Mr Otero of Brixton Energy has organised here, and he is passionate about the benefits it brings to the community.

"It really enables citizens to get involved with the ownership of their energy," he says.

"It is not power to the people, it's power to, for and by the people."

The energy generated is partly used to power communal areas on the estate, and the savings made are also being passed on to residents.

Some are given energy audits, and some are given help with energy switching.

Sharon Callender, a single mother of three, has had draught-proofing installed on her windows. Her energy bills should be cut substantially as a result.

solar panels being installed Young people on the estate get paid to help install the equipment

"I believe it will have a positive impact," says her 18-year-old son, Kamerl.

"The bills will be reduced, because we won't have to use the heating as often as we usually do."

Schools and churches

Brixton Energy makes money by selling its electricity to the grid, and through the Feed-in Tariff (FiT). This is a subsidy paid through energy companies to anyone who generates renewable energy.

The rate has been reduced about eight times over the past two years, but the government is now planning to make some thresholds more generous.

Larger community projects, which generate over 10 megawatts of electricity, should be able to claim a higher FiT subsidy.

The government has also launched a scheme to provide rural renewable projects, be they solar, wind or hydro-electric, with £15m of grants and loans.

"We want to help consumers, businesses and communities generate more of their own clean, green electricity locally," said Greg Barker, the Minister for Energy and Climate Change.

Community Energy Projects

England 1,971

Scotland 132

Wales 134

Northern Ireland 28

Total 2,265

source: Energy Saving Trust

"The expansion of our reformed Feed-in Tariff will encourage even more communities to get on board," he said.

There are already more than 2,000 community energy projects across the UK, but there is scope for many more.

"We are already seeing these sorts of schemes popping up on schools, on churches, on sports clubs everywhere," says Andy Deacon, of the Energy Saving Trust.

"And those buildings can be right for these types of renewable schemes."

Return

Schemes like the one in Brixton are paid for through private finance.

Investors typically live within a mile of the estate and pay £500 each.

Because of a government tax incentive, known as the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme, most of them get half that money back.

The only requirement is that they keep their money invested for at least three years.

They also get a 4% return every year, paid for by the scheme's profits.

While that may sound pretty generous, investors do not get their capital back for 20 years.

In the meantime the shares might be difficult to sell, as there is no real marketplace in which to do so.

However, quite a few investors have seen such benefits going to local people, they give up their dividends.

It is little wonder, therefore, that such schemes are not just about powering local communities, they're about empowering them as well.

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