Community solar groups

At this stage of the Big Solar Co-op project we are spending lots of time talking to community solar groups across the UK at different stages in their evolution, who want to know whether Big Solar Co-op might work for them. We hope so – and if it doesn’t, we need to understand why and change what we are doing. A lot of the same questions come up – we don’t have all the answers of course but we have done a lot of thinking through how community energy groups could work as part of a Big Solar Co-op approach. This page brings together our thinking to date and will be updated as this improves with feedback and involvement of more community energy groups.

Of course one size definitely does not fit all – what will work for a new group just starting out with community solar will not work for an established society owning solar sites, or a larger local energy organisation which may have a larger portfolio and wider interests than solar, and may also have paid staff. But there are common themes.

The starting point for most is that they want to build more solar locally but are currently finding it very hard to do  – in many cases impossible. Under the existing model (locally-based solar societies owning between 1 and 50 solar arrays) very few sites are viable – which means it is hard to create, sustain and grow organisations dedicated to community solar. Our core insight is that by working together we can remove the blockers and unlock lots more sites. We think this does involve an evolution of the approach we have used to date, but that the compromises this entails are definitely worth making.

Local ownership

It’s clear that a key aspect of the community energy movement has been local action – making things happen in our own backyard, working with other people face to face, bringing local benefit and strengthening the local economy. For some we have spoken to the Big Solar Co-op approach looks like a non-starter because it seems to undermine the notion of local energy.

It’s worth saying up front that Big Solar Co-op has been thought up by people who have been heavily involved in local energy  – Sharenergy has worked closely with over 100 community energy projects, almost all of which have been based in specific locations and who are proud to be 100% locally-owned. But we have to admit that the model which we have helped to create has its downsides. Those were manageable in the past but we think it has hit a brick wall. That’s why we want to work with the movement to evolve the model and move forward.

In the Big Solar Co-op as we have envisaged it, many things stay the same at the local level. The work of finding new sites, of getting to know the owners and bringing them on board, of recruiting new people to the cause as activists and/or investors and of promoting the community energy movement, continue to be largely carried out by people working together in their geographic community. Local people investing in the Big Solar Co-op will be contributing funds which build new solar in their community. We anticipate that existing organisations would continue to operate under their current identity.

The key difference is that the solar assets would be owned by a national body not by a locally-based one. That does not mean that finance flows out of the area – the benefit to community and other buildings of cheaper electricity will remain local as will the returns on capital to any local members. It does involve a dilution of control in that however good our governance structure, local organisations will not be able to completely go their own way. Whether that is a problem depends on the priorities of local activists. We would argue that many small solar societies have a democratic structure which does not in practice need to make contentious decisions and which can be a burden on those who put in many volunteer hours to run Board meetings, AGMs etc.  Larger organisations with a wider remit may well have locally-specific needs, but this possibly does not relate much to the solar side of their undertaking in many cases.

Community funds and benefit

A common question is  – what happens to community benefit funding – how can that be shared out equitably in a Big Solar Co-op structure? The short answer is that we think that over the next few years this is unfortunately not a relevant issue. Financial viability is so tight that we can’t see any significant community funds coming out of community renewables at the moment. For some this is a killer blow – we know that many organisations had, and may still have, expectations that they will be able to finance other community action with the profits from renewable energy. In some cases this has come to pass, but in the era of unsubsidised renewables we don’t see this as a realistic option. Big Solar Co-op can’t fix this problem – so we understand it will not work for those whose primary focus is the creation of an income stream for other projects.

That doesn’t mean that Big Solar Co-op cannot create community benefit. One tangible benefit is that of cheaper electricity in community buildings. We want to maximise this wherever possible – it makes sense to use any surplus to allow us to install on buildings which otherwise might not be viable even under the Big Solar Co-op model – there will be plenty of those. We hope that the creation of a nationwide network of activists for solar will have positive spinoffs for other projects too.

A related concern is that Big Solar Co-op stands to do little or nothing for fuel poverty, energy efficiency, decarbonisation of heat and transport, etc. That is perfectly true as it stands (though we hope there will be opportunities to develop the project to reach further into those areas). We know many community energy groups are very focused on these issues, and we recognise that in some ways they are more important than solar. However in the UK policy vacuum it is extremely hard to make self-sustaining social enterprises work to combat these problems. It’s completely essential that we continue to lobby for policy change and work to find ways around the lack of support in these areas. In the meantime we think we can actually build some solar – so let’s do it!

Paid staff vs volunteers

One of the first questions Jon was asked when talking about Big Solar Co-op with dedicated and experienced community energy activists was – why should I volunteer when you get paid to do this! At the same event there was a strong debate around professionalisation – the idea that community energy needs to create paid roles and grow expertise to survive and flourish. In this context it might seem perverse to propose a structure which is based on volunteer work.

We would argue that volunteers are already the wellspring of the community energy movement. Very few of the groups we work with could have happened without volunteers, who are almost always the life-force of new and ongoing groups, who create and develop local connections, who go the extra mile and who are in it for the long haul. That’s not to downplay the importance of paid workers who provide some much expert support. We need both. But if we downplay the importance of volunteers we deprive our movement of so much resource – to the extent that we don’t think rooftop solar at any sort of scale can be viable if all the work is paid work.

Our proposal is to continue to work as a volunteer-led movement, but to support those volunteers better and value their time more keenly. Somebody who understands that we are in a climate crisis and is willing to put in the time to do something about it is a key resource for our entire species! They deserve to know that their efforts are having maximum impact.  Our experience suggests that there are many people who are very keen to have something tangible to work on, and that those people feel empowered, not exploited, when they can work with others in a fair structure to effect change.

At the same time there is a need for paid workers to carry out functions which require expertise or levels of dedication which it is unfair (or in some cases illegal) to ask of volunteers. Examples include:

  • Solar system design, installation and maintenance
  • Legal, IT and other professional support
  • Training, events management, marketing
  • Administration, book-keeping, accountancy

Our aim is that by increasing the number of viable solar sites we also increase the number of sustainable paid roles in these areas. Can we also pay people to go out and find, assess and sign up solar sites? We think in the case of most solar sites, that’s probably not now financially viable, and that volunteers can do this just as well or better. For some groups that will entail no change of approach, for others it might.

That doesn’t mean that paid staff with expertise in site finding have no role in Big Solar Co-op. We think there are many types of site where a local approach may not be best, and a national or regional strategic approach would work better – sites owned by national institutions, services and businesses. The Big Solar Co-op needs paid staff who can develop these multi-site opportunities.

It’s worth noting that many of the paid workers in the movement are also volunteers  – and some people who are mainly volunteers are also paid staff, often on a part-time basis. It makes sense to provide expenses and a small stipend to people who are willing to support others in our network as peer mentors, taking inspiration from projects like Renew Wales. And there is a need for training (and training trainers) and much of that will be waged work.