“And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light, but the Electricity Board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected…”
We hope to do better…. We have created the West Solent Solar Co-operative to generate renewable energy for, and by, the local community. The solar farm we are building will generate enough electricity for about 600 local households. It will produce in the region of 2.5 GWh each year and cost about £2.5 million to build. It will save Hampshire approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 each year.
The project started with an idea about a year ago. A search for a suitable site in the area identified a 12.65 acre field in Lower Pennington, Near Lymington and about half a mile from the sea, opposite the Isle of Wight. It has been recently restored after a decade of use, initially for gravel extraction and then for burying construction waste. A board member has purchased the field and leased it to the West Solent Solar Co-op for 25 years, with an option to extend it for another 10 years.
Six members of the board of West Solent Solar Co-op live in the New Forest area. There is a strong Transition influence with five directors being New Forest Transition members. There is significant Quaker input too. Between them, the directors have a broad range of skills and experience, including engineering, planning, new business creation, sustainability (including working for the London 2012 sustainability team), business management, film-making and legal. All these have been put to good use.
There were no objections to our application for planning permission and we received lots of support from many local people, including New Forest Transition, Friends of the Earth, and Quaker and other like-minded networks. We received planning permission in early December 2013.
Early in the project we applied to our electricity network operator, Scottish & Southern Energy for a budget estimate for the grid connection. We applied for 2.7MWp and were offered 2.0MWp. We discovered by talking to other solar farms that the convention is to install 20% additional capacity and cap the output at the grid connection limit. This we have done and we are installing 2.4MWp of solar panels.
The RooFit team at Ofgem were incredibly helpful and we managed to obtain pre-accreditation on the 31st December 2013. This means that the Feed in Tariff rate that prevailed then is reserved for us for 6 months, avoiding the real risk that the FiT rate falls while the project develops. We therefore need to build the solar farm and connect to the grid by the 30th June 2014.
To help raise the necessary funds to build the solar farm, we are working with Energy4All, a not-for-profit company based in Barrow-in-Furness who have raised similar sums of money for eight wind co-ops. We are their first solar project.
We financed the early part of the project with our own resources and despite applying to funds such as the Rural Communities Renewable Energy Fund we discovered that the New Forest is considered to be urban and we did not qualify! Energy4All has a linked fund, Energy Prospects, which lent us the money to secure the grid connection. We have since repaid this loan.
In February 2014, we offered the 50 initial members of our co-op the opportunity to invest under the Government’s Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). The limit for this scheme is a total of £150k and happily we were oversubscribed.
The main fund raising effort began on March 18th with the objective of raising £2.46 million, including c.10% from a five-year community bond. We set a minimum investment level of £1.3 million shares and £160k of bonds to build a 1.2MWp solar plant. If we did not raise this we would return all the money subscribed. We were delighted to pass the minimum investment level on April 15th and total funds passed the £2 million mark just after the Easter break.
We have been fortunate in many respects. For example, the BBC picked up the story, and published it on their website. This was followed by a television interview on the BBC South Today local news programme and an outside broadcast interview on BBC Radio Solent. These interviews were incredibly helpful in raising local awareness of our project and stimulated a significant and immediate increase in the number of visits to our website.
We have chosen Solarcentury to build the solar farm and they will start work on May 8th and connect to the grid by June 28th, two days ahead of our FiT deadline. Scottish & Southern Energy has already built their sub-station.
We have started to implement our planting programme with volunteers from the local community planting almost 1,000 hedgerow trees provided by the Woodland Trust. The hedge will eventually go right round the site providing a valuable wildlife corridor. We will plant a wild flower meadow right around the perimeter of the panels and also between the panels. We will place beehives on the site and probably arrange for sheep to graze the site in the autumn.
The Met Office map (right) shows that we are located in an area of the UK, which receives the greatest annual hours of sunlight, and therefore an ideal location for a solar farm.
This project is the result of the local community working together. More information can be found on our website www.westsolentsolar.coop or by phoning us on 0845 373 3612.
Anthony Woolhouse, Chairman, with Jonathan Blease, Kate Chapman and Cathy Cook, all New Forest Transition members and Directors of the West Solent Solar Cooperative.
Update just before we posted this piece:
“Could you add a small note to our story that today we reached our fundraising goal of £2.46 million and have therefore ended our share drive and closed the books for new share applications. Very exciting! We will start construction in the coming weeks, so that we have can have everything installed and up and running by the end of June.
Congratulations from everyone at Transition Network…