When Sustainable Charlbury called a public meeting about building a community-owned solar farm in their small Oxfordshire town, only four people turned up.
The group of volunteers had been working locally to tackle climate change since 2006 but, over the years, their campaign had lost momentum.
However, this time they had hit on an idea that really captured the imagination of the community.
“By the time we had our second meeting, we put out around 50 chairs - more in hope than expectation,” explains Tim Crisp, who had been involved in voluntary community group, Sustainable Charlbury, for around five years.
But word had spread and more than 100 people packed into the room.
Almost overnight, the group had started a ball rolling that would deliver a new community-owned solar farm capable of supplying electricity to more than 1,000 local homes.
It all started when Sustainable Charlbury’s members made a chance visit to an open day at Westmill Solar, a community-owned generator with a solar farm in south-west Oxfordshire, in 2012.
The event provided the inspiration the members needed, transforming their ambitions and in time prompting the group to change its name to Southill Solar.
Unlike most community energy projects, Southill Solar decided to run the whole project themselves – meaning they would have to find most of the expertise and financial support they needed from their local area.
“We knew what we wanted to achieve inside out and, although we knew it would be hard, we wanted our support to come from the community,” Tim explains.
It proved to be a good decision. Fortune had already smiled on the group when it secured a deal with a local landowner for an ideal site, but building a solar farm in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty would also require strong local support.
As momentum built, Southill Solar began to find all the skills it needed within its own community – from the landscape architect to planning experts and marketing specialists.
Race Against Time
In 2014, there was still a great deal left to do. The scheme’s first planning application had been rejected, it had no connection to the national grid, and the group would need to raise around £4.5m to build and begin operating the solar panels.
It had the opportunity to submit a revised planning application for free – but only if it could do so within a year. Meanwhile, it needed to be operational by [September] 2016 to qualify for one of two government subsidies that would make it viable.
The group rallied together and, with a lot of hard work, launched a community share offer the following February.
“We raised £1.1m in four months and 80% of that was from our postcode. This was a great project and local people really bought into the idea of doing something about climate change,” Tim Crisp, Southill Solar
A New Dawn
More than 17,000 solar panels were installed during the summer of 2016 and, while the group missed its original [September] deadline, a government delay meant that it still qualified for one of the two subsidies it needed despite not finishing testing until January 2017.
Southill Solar has now been generating and selling clean, green electricity to Co-op Energy for more than two years. By planting native grasses and wild flowers on the rest of the site, and installing Britain’s first high-tech thermo-solar beehives, the site has also become a haven for wildlife.
Sharing the Benefits
Most importantly, Southill Solar now uses the profit it makes selling electricity to Co-op Energy to fund other community initiatives, like installing energy-efficient lighting in local community centres or supporting conservation in the Cotswolds.
It is about to pay its first dividend to members and has promised a further £100,000 to other community schemes.
From 2019, it will be able to do even more as Co-op Energy’s Community Power Tariff increases the amount Southill receives for the electricity it generates.
As well as guaranteeing that customers get all their electricity from community-owned generators, Community Power also pays schemes like Southill above the market rate for the electricity they generate.
“It is very unusual for a community solar project to be in such a financially strong position so early on,” says Tim. “Community Power will only make us even stronger.”