Big Solar FAQ

Generally long lists of frequently asked questions aren’t a great read…but this project is unprecedented in the UK and people have lots of questions, so here is our FAQ. Let us know if you think something is missing or still unclear.

What is the Big Solar Co-op?
The Big Solar Co-op will be an autonomous big co-operative society formed for the mutual benefit of all the members. It was formed with an idea of supporting each other to achieve a common goal – to increase the amount of solar power generation within UK communities, especially since the FiTs subsidies were removed. The overriding notion is to work together, eliminate duplications of effort, bring efficiencies and take advantage of economies of scale.

Why do we need the Big Solar Co-op?
Community solar was going pretty well until the subsidies were removed on 31 March 2019. Since then, new solar in the UK has taken a nosedive and 30 community projects totalling 4MW capacity will miss out on FiT contracts by the end of 2019 (source: Green Alliance). The Big Solar Co-op aims to install 100 MW of new solar by 2025, without relying on subsidies.

How can it work without subsidies?
Things have been changing in the world of solar technology and panels are now cheaper and more efficient than ever. Locating sites where the end user will be able to use a large proportion of the electricity generated and will be resident for a long time is key to post-subsidy solar being successful in the long term. Each site needs its own financial model to be drawn up – we can help with that!

Who runs the Big Solar Co-op?
The main national point of contact is Noël Lambert, she is the Coordinator of the Big Solar Co-op and is on the Development team at Sharenergy. They will steer the direction of the co-op overall and make sure it stays on track to achieve its aims but input from the solar community is welcome and encouraged! We will all run the co-op; that’s what it is all about. As the project develops and the Big Solar Co-op emerges fully, there will be opportunities for further roles to be created.

Who are Sharenergy?
Sharenergy is a not-for-profit co-op that provides support for the full lifecycle of community energy projects and have been doing so since 2011. They have helped over 200 groups with renewable energy projects and run over 30 community share offers. All their surplus is all reinvested into making community energy work.

Why is it a national project?
We are stronger together and can use economies of scale, a wider knowledge pool and access to Sharenergy support services to get more solar installed than is possible in small, disparate groups. The increased visibility of a nationwide project and distributed risk also helps potential investors to feel more confident in their investment.

What is the pioneer programme?
The pioneer programme is a test run of the Big Solar Co-op concept that allows us to work with committed individuals and organisations who want to be in the co-op right from the start, our pioneers. The aim of the pioneer programme is to get new solar up in 5 different locations and generating clean energy without subsidies asap. This will give us strong insight into how to best to shape the bigger nationwide Big Solar Co-op project. Essentially it’s a chance to try out new technologies and approaches and see what works well and what doesn’t…and it might get messy!

How do I get involved?
The Big Solar Co-op is currently making connections with groups across the UK, with a special focus on the Midlands and the North where there is less community solar power and historically the cooperative movement was very strong. You can sign up to our mailing list, complete our Big Solar Survey, read more on our website and follow us on social media for updates.

How is the Big Solar Co-op planning for future changes and development?
Being a UK-wide group and being able to draw on years of in depth solar power creation experience means that we can interact at a higher level with the actors at the cutting edge of the clean energy revolution. We are already investigating various new approaches that will bring efficiencies and cost-savings to the co-op, including storage optimisation, peer to peer energy trading, EV charging and centralised array design and purchasing.

Does the Big Solar Co-op have any jobs going?
We have hosted 2 paid internships and directly employed one of the interns as of January 2020. We are recruiting a Solar Project Lead and hope to have someone in early 2020, application can be submitted until the 8th of January via Totaljobs.

The plan is to increase the scale of the Big Solar Co-op project in time and create further paid sustainable roles though so keep an eye on our website and social channels for future roles and opportunities.

Who pays the Big Solar Co-op staff?
Grants from The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the MCS Charitable Foundation cover the costs of the staff on the Big Solar Co-op project. There is a small budget to run events and facilitate our training and mentoring activities.

We are new to this and have never put up solar before in our community, how will the Big Solar Co-op help us?
Individuals and new groups stand to benefit the most from the Big Solar Co-op. With our pooled experience of setting up community solar we will help you avoid the pitfalls that many new groups often stumble into. We will work with you to evaluate sites, support you in approaching landowners, developing robust legal agreements and run your share offer. You won’t have to organise an AGM or update your website as this will be done by the Big Solar Co-op, freeing you and your group up to spend your time on getting more solar on roofs!

Why do people want to put up solar in their area?
Some are driven by the desire to mitigate global climate change, others want to eradicate fuel poverty in their area or just benefit from cheaper electricity. What they all have in common is that they are trying to make a difference and the additional wins of community cohesion and engagement are welcome too!

I know about a good site for solar, what now?
You can let us know about a potential site for solar using our online form. We will take a quick look at it and if it looks like it would be suitable for the Big Solar Co-op we will get in touch about the next steps. You can choose to be as involved as you like – submitting a site does not commit you to anything and we won’t go ahead with contacting the building owner etc without speaking to you first.

Does the Big Solar Co-op give out money to community solar groups?
No, the Big Solar Co-op does not have funds of its own to distribute but can run community share offers for you through the admin services section of Sharenergy. We can also help you with gaining the expertise needed to successfully seek funding yourself by providing training and mentorship from experienced community group volunteers.

My community group already has some solar that receives FiTs and want to add more, how can you help us?
What will happen to our existing sites if we join the Big Solar Co-op?

We can help you evaluate new sites and create a financial model for them that will work without FiTs. You can keep your existing sites and run them as you were and only the new sites will be managed centrally through the Big Solar Co-op. Or you can choose to merge all your sites into the Big Solar Co-op structure to make the most of the support offered by the co-op and free you up to do other things.

We are a community energy group with a renewable technology mix – how will joining the Big Solar Co-op help us?
For groups that already run their administration through Sharenergy, or are looking to do so in future, joining the Big Solar Co-op will be pretty straightforward and you will benefit from the added support. For groups that have a mix of technologies and run their administration separately to Sharenergy it may be less effective for them to join the Big Solar Co-op unless they are planning a very large solar install (~100KW).

What if the subsidies come back?
We think this is unlikely but if they did…that would be great! We would keep the Big Solar Co-op going, pay back investors ahead of time, nurture new or struggling community groups and get MORE solar up!

Will the Big Solar Co-op generate a Community Benefit Fund?
No, any surplus funds will be reinvested into the Big Solar Co-op to further the aim of creating more rooftop solar. The plan is to help the neediest groups among those most likely to succeed in their aim of long term solar power generation, first.

Can the Big Solar Co-op help individuals with domestic solar or home energy checks?
No, at this stage the Big Solar Co-op is just concerned with getting more solar arrays onto roofs at the community level at this time. Energy checks will form part of any feasibility study undertaken for schools and community buildings though.

Can I find out about funding through the Big Solar Co-op?
This is not our main focus but through our connections at Sharenergy we have many ears to the ground and may be able to help with this. It’s always worth asking!

Will the Big Solar Co-op help me with finding external funding and doing funding applications?
No, but we can put you in touch with our contacts at Sharenergy who are experienced in this area and may well be able to help you through their admin services section.

Does it cost money to join the Big Solar Co-op?
No, being part of the Big Solar Co-op is entirely free. The main form of input from members is that they can join national groups specialising in one aspect of project delivery eg. Site evaluation or co-operative structures and nurture new groups.

Can I donate money to the Big Solar Co-op?
We would rather have your time and skills but might accept supporter donations in future, to be used for new or struggling sites.

I want to get involved but don’t have any experience, where do I start?
Just get in touch and tell us a little about yourself, our survey is a great way to do this. We are a friendly bunch and are fuelled by enthusiasm for solar and renewables in general. There are no stupid questions so ask us anything! A major part of the development of the co-op will centre around training of volunteers and enabling mentoring from experienced solar activists. Volunteers at all different levels of skill and experience are needed to make this project work and we aim to make it possible for anyone to engage with it, regardless. Your feedback will help us to hone the project as we go, keeping it as agile as it can be.

How can volunteers communicate with other people in the Big Solar Co-op?
In time, there will be regular events for people to get together in skill groups, a Big Solar conference call once a month and an online forum where you will be able to communicate with others and share resources whenever you like. For activists who are engaged in tasks for the co-op there will be a central task tracker that they can log into and pick up updates, next task etc.