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.

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!

Who owns the panels? How are they paid for?
The Big Solar Co-op will own the panels. They will be purchased using capital raised by a community share offer, much like the other ones Sharenergy has run for many of the 100+ community energy groups and projects in the last decade. This share offer will run continuously though to enable a rolling development programme of new sites for community solar PV.

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.

What is the success rate of design proposals being accepted by companies and getting projects all the way to generation?
We don’t know yet! Coronavirus isn’t helping as businesses are needing to prioritise other things and their long term future is uncertain for some, esp. Smaller businesses. But when things settle down a bit, the feedback we have had so far, suggests strongly that a reliable and ethical solution that requires no capital outlay from the host, and supplies cheaper clean energy to the building user would be very welcome.

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!

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.

Getting involved

How do I get involved?
The Big Solar Co-op is currently making connections with groups, individuals and business owners across the UK, with a special focus on the Midlands and the North where there is less community solar power and historically the co-operative 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.

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!

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.

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?
We have had to rethink this during the Covid pandemic and drop our plans for regional in person events. For the forseeable future we will have to rely on online platforms and events like a Big Solar Zoom call once a month and our dedicated Slack workspace for volunteers that have signed an NDA with us. We are also working on a central task tracker that activists who are engaged in tasks for the co-op can log into and pick up updates, next task etc.

Why do I have to sign an NDA?
All volunteer activists are asked to sign a non disclosure agreement (NDA). This is a simple legal document that formally states that any information Sharenergy discloses to the volunteer will not be shared outside of the Big Solar Co-op project. This provides a basic level of protection for the project and sets an expectation of mutual respect. Working with us on a site does not preclude volunteers from trying their own approach to community solar installs, until we are at the point of signing a PPA. Although we hope everyone will choose to stick with us – we are here to empower activists, not hinder progress!

Community groups

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).

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.

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.

 

Money

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!

How much can a host site save on their bills?
The Big Solar Co-op hopes to be able to offer solar generated electricity to the host for between 10-20% less than their existing power provides charges them. The Power Purchase Agreement signed by the host and the Big Solar Co-op will define this agreement on a per site basis and commit both parties for up to 25 years, so we take the time to get this bit absolutely right!

How much interest will the Big Solar Co-op pay on its shares?
The Big Solar Co-op hopes to be able to offer 4% interest on transferable shares.

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.

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.

Is there a profit sharing for the local community?
No, we have found that there is no scope for community benefit fund or profit sharing, post FiTs. The local community can invest in shares and benefit from ~4% interest and the local community will benefit indirectly from the building users paying less for their power and being less reliant on the National Grid. We ALL benefit from increasing the proportion of energy coming from renewable sources across the UK.

Does the Big Solar Co-op have any jobs going?
We have hosted 2 paid internships and directly employed one of the interns prior to him securing a prestigious job in the renewables sector. We have recently recruited a Solar Project Lead and hope to create several more green jobs in 2021. The plan is to steadily increase the scale of the Big Solar Co-op project 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.