We’re taking a new approach to community energy in the UK and people have lots of questions, so here are some answers. Let us know if you think something is missing or unclear.
Who, what, why?
What is the Big Solar Co-op?
The Big Solar Co-op is a co-operative society owned and run for the mutual benefit of its members. The idea is to support each other to achieve a common goal – to increase the amount of solar power generation in UK communities, especially since the feed-in tariff subsidies were removed. By working together, we can 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 government removed subsidies on 31 March 2019. Since then, new solar in the UK has taken a nosedive with the latest (2022) Community Energy England state of the Sector report showing the lowest number of new installations since 2017. The Big Solar Co-op aims to install 100 MW of subsidy-free new solar by 2030.
Who runs the Big Solar Co-op?
We all run the co-op; that’s what it’s all about! We’re owned by our members. Our support team works daily with volunteer members to keep the show on the road. Input from the wider solar community is welcome and actively encouraged! We expect to create new roles as the project develops.
Why is it a national project?
We are stronger together. Economies of scale, a wider knowledge pool and access to Sharenergy support services can get more solar installed than 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.
Who owns the panels? How are they paid for?
The Big Solar Co-op owns the PV panels. They are be purchased using capital raised by a community share offer, much like the other ones Sharenergy has run for many successful community energy groups and projects over the last decade.
How is the Big Solar Co-op planning for future changes and development?
As a UK-wide group with substantial in-depth solar power experience we can be at the cutting edge of the clean energy revolution. We are already investigating ways to 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 projects getting from the design phase to generation?
It’s still early days for us. Coronavirus, financial and energy crises were obviously a setback for some of the business community but things are settling down again – we hope! The feedback we have had so far suggests that a reliable, ethical solution requiring no capital outlay from the host, supplying cheaper clean energy to the building user would be very welcome. The recent hike in energy prices has underscored that.
Why do people want to put up solar in their area?
Some are driven by the desire to mitigate climate change, others want to tackle fuel poverty or just benefit from cheaper electricity. What they have in common is trying to make a difference, with community cohesion and engagement being extra wins.
Can the Big Solar Co-op help individuals with domestic solar?
No, sorry we can’t at the moment. We are focusing on getting more solar arrays onto community and commercial rooftops for maximum carbon benefit – the model does not work for small rooftops or where there is not much energy used on site.
How do I get involved?
Our first ‘nodes’ are in Shropshire and Telford, Stroud and Birmingham, but we want to hear from you wherever you are. You can sign up to our mailing list, attend our events, read more on our website, watch our webinars 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 of a good site for solar, what now?
Let us know using our online form. If it looks likely to be feasible we will get in touch about the next steps. You can be as involved as you choose – submitting a site does not commit you to anything and we won’t take the project forward without speaking to you first.
I want to participate but don’t have any experience, where do I start?
Check out our volunteer page. Training and mentoring from experienced solar activists is a key part of our ethos. We need volunteers at all different levels of skill and experience to make the co-op work. Your feedback will help us to hone things and stay agile.
How can volunteers communicate with others in the Big Solar Co-op?
Most of our events occur online – which makes it much easier to interact with others wherever they are. Our main channels are a monthly Big Solar Zoom call and our dedicated Slack workspace. We have annual in-person gatherings too.
Why do I have to sign a Volunteer Member Agreement?
All volunteers are asked to sign an agreement which sets out their rights and responsibilities – like non-disclosure of our clients’ business . This provides a basic level of protection for the project and sets an expectation of mutual respect.
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 subsidy. You can continue to run your existing sites and only the new sites will be managed 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 our support and free you up to do other things.
We are a community energy group with a renewable technology mix – how can joining the Big Solar Co-op help us?
We can help you to develop new solar, our model can work alongside your existing installations.
Does the Big Solar Co-op give money to community solar groups?
No, the Big Solar Co-op we don’t have funds of our own to distribute but Sharenergy can run community share offers for you through its admin services section. We can also provide training and mentorship to help you seek funding yourself.
Will the Big Solar Co-op help me with finding external funding and doing funding applications?
No, but our experienced contacts at Sharenergy may be able to help you through their admin services section.
How can it work without subsidies?
Improving solar technology means panels are more efficient than ever, while electricity prices have soared. Sites where the end user can use a large proportion of the electricity generated for a long time will be the most successful. We draw up a financial model for every site.
How much can a host site save on their bills?
The Big Solar Co-op aims to be able to offer solar generated electricity to the host for 10-20% less than their existing power provider. That saving could be much larger while energy market prices spike. The Power Purchase Agreement signed by the host and the Big Solar Co-op can last for up to 30 years, so we make sure we get this bit absolutely right!
How much interest will the Big Solar Co-op pay on its shares?
The Big Solar Co-op will offer 4% interest on withdrawable shares.
Does it cost money to join the Big Solar Co-op?
Volunteer members pay £1 to join. Investor members join by buying shares from £100 to £100,000.
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 are brought back?
This is unlikely but if that happened we’d keep the Big Solar Co-op going, pay back investors ahead of time, nurture new or struggling community groups and put up even more solar.
Will the Big Solar Co-op generate a Community Benefit Fund?
No, surplus funds will be reinvested into the Big Solar Co-op to further the aim of creating more rooftop solar. We plan to focus first on the neediest groups with the best chance of success with long-term solar power generation.
Will the local community have a share of the profits?
No, without subsidy there’s no scope for a community benefit fund or profit sharing. However the local community can invest in shares and benefit from ~4% interest and will benefit indirectly from building users reducing their power costs. We all benefit from increasing the proportion of energy coming from solar across the UK, which helps bring down power costs overall.
Who pays the Big Solar Co-op staff?
We have received early stage funding from The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the MCS Charitable Foundation . There is a small budget to run events and facilitate our training and mentoring activities. We’re transitioning to a wholly self-sustaining model.