Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Energy Stories Library item 19 Aug 2017

A solar wildlife haven

Anthony Woolhouse’s interest in leading a more sustainable life and helping to address the impacts of climate change led to him install a ground source heat pump and PV in his home. But his single minded drive didn’t stop there and so Anthony set his mind to finding a site on which to develop a solar farm near his home in Hordle in the New Forest.

He eventually found a 12.5 acre former gravel pit, near Lymington, which fitted the bill so set about forming a cooperative called West Solent Solar Co-operative, modelled on those he had seen visiting family in Denmark.

Fortunately, the local community contained people with the skills that would prove invaluable to helping Anthony, whose background was in town planning and finance, realise his ambition

Anthony explained: “The board of seven people were all local, a couple of engineers including one who used to work for the oil and gas industry and an ex-corporate lawyer. These were the sorts of skills I didn’t have but when put together the complementary skills really gave us what we needed to take the project forward.”

Because it was a co-operative, owned by local people, nobody objected to the planning application. They managed to raise the £2.6m, from 453 members and 50 bondholders, in about six weeks to form the first community owned renewables project in Hampshire. Some of the solar farm’s neighbours even invested in the project.

From having the vision to linking the 9372 solar panels to the national grid in June 2014 took just 12 months. The site has a capacity of 2.4Mw, enough to supply 650 local homes.

The group have planted a hedge around the perimeter of the site to act as a wildlife corridor and sown wildflower seeds over the whole brownfield site to improve the biodiversity. Last year they found some rare bee orchids and have developed a ten-year monitoring programme with support from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

Anthony said: “We had a vision to have sheep on the site and someone we knew who had been given three sheep as a wedding present brought them to the site and they do a fantastic job of keeping the grass cut.“

A community grant fund scheduled to start three years after they began producing electricity began after just 18 months as their profits were higher than predicted. One of the projects they have funded is a compostable toilet for a rural nursery school.

Anthony said: “We wanted to make a project that the local community would be proud of and I’m pretty sure we’ve got there. Our energy goes to Coop Energy who have an option where customers can choose a local energy supplier to supply their electricity and their members are buying West Solent electricity.

They also organise school visits to the site to educate children and key local stakeholders, such as local politicians, about the importance of renewable energy.

Anthony is less impressed by the resistance to renewable projects at national and local levels. Planning permission for Navitus Bay, a 970 MW offshore wind farm, six miles off the Dorset coast, that could have supplied energy to 900,000 households, was refused in September 2015.

Anthony said: “Renewable energy is seen as something new and dangerous whereas fossil fuels are something people have grown up with and therefore they’re prepared to put up with when you actually have oil spills and carbon emissions from power stations.”

The future of community energy also looks less rosy as the grid is over capacity in many places and it’s difficult to find sites from where you can link to it. Anthony tried to develop a project on a site where he wanted to put a 4MW solar project but Scottish and Southern Electric said the maximum development would be just 270Kw which forced him to shelve the whole project.

Anthony said: “It’s quite difficult now because the Conservatives have taken most of the subsidies away. They have made it incredibly difficult and the financial conduct authority haven’t helped as they will not register any new co-operatives for renewable energy.

“The main thing is that the withdrawal of subsidies was very rapid. We had six months between being pre-accredited for the Feed-In Tariff to having to raise the money and build our solar farm - we did it with three days to spare. The government have gone against renewable energy, effectively stopped onshore wind and taken away the subsidies from solar and left it outside the renewable obligations certificate.

“There is a ‘contracts for difference’ which is designed for very large companies and that is something very difficult for community energy to work with and so the sector is left with fairly small rooftop projects. There were a lot of ground-based projects similar to ours, some of which had planning permission, but they can’t find an economic model to make it work.”

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