Solving our energy problems calls for a rethink of our energy investment, generation and distribution systems. It asks us to look beyond blaming the big energy companies or individual consumer habits, to focus on creating an affordable system where all energy users are the key to the solution, as opposed to ‘the problem’.
How? you ask. Allow people to co-produce their energy and well being with decentralised, co-operatively owned, renewable energy. The Repowering South London Co-operative was set up in 2011 to combat fuel poverty, bring about energy independence and jump start a renewable energy (r)evolution.
Our first project in Brixton has been successfully producing solar power since the spring, in one of the UK’s most deprived boroughs. A 37kWp array was installed in March 2012 on Elmore House in Loughborough Estate, a social housing estate owned by Lambeth Council and run by United Residents Housing. This was funded largely by Brixton residents and was the first inner-city community-owned energy project in the UK.
Here are some of the challenges we faced in making this happen, and how we overcame them:
The Funding Challenge
Over the year of development on our first project, Brixton Energy Solar 1, volunteers provided about 2,500 working hours to the project from concept to installation. After approximately one year of development, planned changes to the Feed in Tariffs were threatening the financial return of the project. With a bit of good timing in January 2012, we secured development funds of £34,300 from the government’s one-off Local Energy Assessment Fund (LEAF) that provided financial support to pay volunteers for their expertise on engineering, planning, legal, IT, technical and financial development.
The remaining financial challenge was to raise the £60,000 capital cost from the local community. We did this by setting up a co-operative industrial and provident society so local residents could invest in renewable energy projects and receive reasonable returns over 25 years. The Brixton Energy Solar 1 installation was delivered on time within budget, even within the rocky landscape of the government feed-in tariff changes. Successful installation provided financial viability for admin and ongoing operational costs.
The financial innovation
The capital cost was raised through a community share offer, enabling dozens of residents of the Loughborough Estate, and greater Brixton to become co-owners of the solar power station. The income from the feed-in tariff provides the 103 shareholders with an annual return, as well as creating a long term ring-fenced energy efficiency fund, which will support initiatives such as draught busting, energy saving workshops and advice, and training opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency for residents of the estate over the next 25 years.
A further financial innovation was giving co-operative members the choice to purchase and receive their annual share payment in the local currency the Brixton Pound, a first globally. This use of local currency helps to ensure that the return on investment stays in the local economy.
Galvanizing communities: More and more people feel disenfranchised and uninterested. It is key to engage with our communities to find what their needs are. In the case of Brixton, unemployment, fuel poverty and lack of opportunities for youth were identified as priorities through face-to-face interaction and by knocking on doors. Not knocking once… but making maps of street and apartments, then following up, going back four to ten times to make sure more than 50 per cent of the residents were engaged and supported the project.
Local government: Gaining the support of local councillors can be a significant hurdle, but the main hurdle is often convincing the council’s corporate risk and legal teams. This is best overcome by demonstrating strong fundamentals for a project: financial acumen, social deliverables and resident support. Commitments to social cohesion, education, and reducing fuel poverty are mandated in every political party. Showing that your project helps the council to address these issues can bring council support and partnership.
Business acumen: A challenge which dooms many an excellent community initiative is the inability to attend to business practice while upholding social aims. Being a community organisation doesn’t exclude good financial practice, risk analysis, tax law or prompt responses, it necessitates it. Before you say, “But I am not good with business stuff,” know that the project goes nowhere without it.
Rules of engagement for communities: You need respectful communication, good time keeping, a clear set of objectives and an agenda. Bringing all ages and disciplines together under clear engagement principles activates locals’ imagination and attracts seemingly unobtainable skills. Generating carbon-free energy is important, but so too is transforming the perception of household energy consumption.
Visible inner city projects like Brixton Energy Solar 1 encourage residents to contemplate and control their personal energy consumption. Creating co-operative power stations for people to invest in builds further awareness. Generating and maintaining a Community Energy Efficiency Fund from a portion of the annual revenue ensures continued and direct engagement with residents.
These three elements of generation, education and co-operative investment allow individuals to be part of the solution to a low carbon future.
Brixton Energy is installing its second solar array. Find out more.