Energy Minister Greg Barker returned to visit Brighton Energy Coop again today. Last September the minister liked what he saw at our St George’s Church site – so today he came back to take a look at our latest install at Shoreham Port.
This time the minister also came along with with Hove MP Mike Weatherley (a BEC member), who invited Mr Barker along. Many thanks to Mike for his excellent advocacy.
That Mr Barker is a fan of community energy is both evident and to be applauded. Indeed, BEC’s latest project fits nicely with the Minister’s promotion of building-mounted solar. And he’s absolutely right when he points out that there is huge potential for such installations nationwide. He told Business Green there is a “massive untapped potential” for solar systems on UK factories, supermarkets, retail parks, and other commercial buildings with an estimated 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops available.
A big question remains, however: how do we gain the rights to put renewables up there? This is the great unspoken question around community energy (and indeed commercial solar), and one which many groups find extremely difficult when bringing projects to fruition. By turning their attention to this problem the Government could take great strides in helping community energy move forward.
The key decision point is persuading landlords to sign a lease. At Brighton Energy Coop it takes us discussions with ten landlords to produce one lease agreement (on average). These discussions are often time-consuming and complex: since most community groups are almost certainly running on volunteer power when they begin, this is extremely heavy lifting.
So where’s the difficulty? When thinking about solar on their roofs (better consult first with simpsonville roofing company), landlords look at rewards versus risk. And too often the balance is skewed towards the latter.
Yes, the rewards can be substantial. BEC’s existing solar landlords save thousands of pounds each year via the cheap electricity we provide to them. Since our projects run for twenty years the long-term rewards are evident.
However, these savings are based on how much electricity a building uses. If that usage is small then the financial benefits are negligible. A church may not have much to gain since usage is low. A warehouse may be similar. Residential blocks feed solar electricity into their communal supply (lifts, lights etc), which do not always consume substantial amounts of power.
Nor are these savings large enough on their own to facilitate making a decision on a long-term lease with a (probably) unknown third party. Rolls Royce, for example, recently turned down a multi megawatt solar system that would have saved them £58,000 a year. Why? Because £58k is not a substantial-enough saving for a multi-billion pound operation to justify discussions at board level. So their roof goes begging.
This is borne out of our experience here at BEC. We regularly talk to potential solar landlords. And we regularly find that no-one else is talking to them. That’s because people interested in developing solar know that it’s extremely difficult to convince landlords to sign a lease. Existing solar landlords remain in the minority. For the vast majority the idea goes to the bottom of the to-do list – and stays there.
Positive steps are required to facilitate this thorny process. Below are some ideas as to how the Government might support community schemes in their discussions with landlords:
1/ A rebate on business rates for community energy landlords. A reduction in business rates for those hosting community-owned renewables would motivate landlords long-term. It would also provide them with a more attractive proposition for future tenants.
2/ Energy efficiency grants for community energy landlords. Offering a package of energy efficiency measures post installation would offer landlords a saving on their bills in addition to cheaper electricity from the renewables they host. Again, this would stimulate their decision making and provide a risk-free benefit to their buildings.
3/ Local Authority initiatives. Startup community groups often find it difficult to get traction within their LA: there’s a disconnect between the decision making process and constituents (a wider democratic problem which I won’t go into here). In this respect initiates such as the Sussex Energy Savings Partnership (SESP) are useful. SESP is looking to fund renewables which are then sold to community groups. Based in West Sussex County Council, SESP has the contacts and networks to drill down into LA decision making – a considerable advantage when looking at locations for renewables.
4/ A minimum community export rate (not a community Feed in Tariff). At present export rates for solar PV is in the 5-6p range per kWh. Mandating suppliers to pay community groups a higher rate for their electricity would increase yields for community schemes, a benefit which could be passed on to landlords as an incentive. This may be part of secondary Feed in Tariff legislation, and as such not to difficult to achieve (unlike changes to FITs themselves). A community export tariff could also motivate suppliers to offer community-energy tariffs to their customers.
5/ A independent resource for community-energy landlords. A reference of existing community-energy landlords – their experiences, expectations and understandings – would be useful for startup coops as they could offer case studies – even if they haven’t installed themselves. Similarly facilitating networking spaces for freeholders would assist the process, helping them assess risks, rewards – and to understand that they’re not on their own out there.
So I’d like to thank Mr Barker for his further support. Renewable energy remains a fiendishly complicated operation; and signing up landlords is the most complex of all. By grappling with this this most difficult aspect the Government could do a great service to all the coops that are starting up across the country (more than 200 at the last count) and help the movement scale as rapidly as we’d all like to see.