Getting local people involved in funding renewable energy projects has quietly been on the rise in recent years. South East London Community Energy (SELCE) is one such group using new financial models, and enjoying some success.
Its £250,000 share offer to fund solar arrays on four schools was taken up by 138 local investors, and the official solar switch-ons have begun.
SELCE Director Dr Giovanna Speciale explained the approach: “We offer a four percent return on investment for investors, and have three revenue streams: the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), sales of discounted electricity to the schools involved, and sales to the grid.
“The four schools were really keen to get access to solar, as they were both well-positioned to get the most out of it, and also saw it as a great educational resource.
“It really works on a number of levels: over 92 tonnes of carbon are cut annually, schools save hundreds of thousands on electricity costs, and we make a modest return on investment – some of which is put back into local fuel poverty work.”
It's not all sunshine, however. The recent reduction in Feed-in Tariff rates does threaten to dampen enthusiasm in the community energy sector.
Dr Speciale said: “This model relies on FiTs – without it it's impossible to charge the discounted electricity rates, which is such a vital part of the offer. I fear installations are going to come to a halt.”
SELCE was wise enough to pre-register its next solar installations, which will be going out to share offer in June. This means solar PV on the six buildings, including three more schools, a cricket club and an artists' studio, will benefit from the higher rate of tariff.
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After that, there will be a change in tactics for the co-operative – making the same business model work for renewable heat. It will be working with a number of local buildings that have swimming pools, and so significant heating demands.
Grant support means SELCE will also be pushing on with successful 'energy cafés', where local people can pop in for a cup of tea, a slice of cake and a chat about their energy use. This can lead to people switching supplier, getting off expensive prepayment meters, and finding out about possible discounts.
Dr Speciale explained: “Some of the people who visit really are facing 'eat or heat' choices. All our cafés are staffed by trained energy efficiency advisers, as it's really important to make sure people are getting all the help they get. Sometimes it's just about myth-busting – for example, quite a few people think fan heaters are cheaper to run than their central heating.”
As well as the cafés, the group will be taking their message on tour after winning a competition to build a 'solar trailer', which will tour carnivals and fêtes, replacing diesel generators for free while bringing a fun educational element.
Dr Speciale added: “Carbon descent is all about talking to people. Hopefully the solar trailer can get people thinking about energy, and provide an example of doing things differently, right in front of them. Conversation and demonstration – that's a really powerful mix.”