Balcombe energy co-op: we aim to take power back from the corporations

Balcombe village sign
Clean energy, generated locally. Surplus energy sold back to the grid. Residents free to invest as little as £250, and promised an annual return of 5%. Further profits placed in a community benefit fund to pay for local facilities or energy saving technologies for local people in fuel poverty. Britain’s community renewable sector is tiny but it is growing. More than 40 community schemes currently offer just 66MW of installed capacity but there is another 200MW of community energy in development.

When people first hear the business plan for REPOWERBalcombe, one of an increasing number of energy co-operatives, they tend to have one response: where’s the catch?

“I don’t think there is one,” says Tom Parker, a gardener and renewables expert who is a member of the new Sussex co-operative. “People think it’s too good to be true or that a bunch of volunteers can’t run a business. I got told the other day, ‘You won’t be able to run this in your lunch hour’. I’ve recently spent my lunch hours reducing my children’s school’s energy by 50% so I don’t see why we can’t run a co-op with so many more helpers.”

Few people have heard about community energy but REPOWERBalcombe may put this quietly growing grassroots movement on the map. The affluent village in the rolling Sussex weald is famed for last year’s anti-fracking protests that got residents thinking about energy production and inspired a public meeting last autumn. Fifty people turned up and REPOWERBalcombe was born. The possibility of fracking polarised opinions, and while prospecting company Cuadrilla has said it will not frack in Balcombe it has a new 30-year lease on its village site and is planning to continue its search for oil. It was recently given permission by West Sussex county council to test oil extraction on a site in the outskirts of Balcombe.

REPOWERBalcombe meanwhile are at pains to stress they are not anti-fracking but simply want to supply the equivalent of 100% of Balcombe’s electricity demand through community owned, locally generated renewable energy.

The group is seeking to raise an initial £300,000 from residents to fund the installation of PV solar panels on sites around Balcombe to generate 224kW of power, equivalent of 7.5% of Balcombe’s current electricity usage. Contrary to some fears, this does not mean unsightly panels on everyone’s houses: the group is seeking several larger sites, and has signed a deal for a 19kW system on a farmer’s cowshed roof, funded by founder members. This should start supplying energy by late summer.

“It’s exciting doing something positive and doing something locally,” says Jackie Emery, one of the residents supporting the co-op. “You feel like you are, forgive the pun, taking power back rather than being a victim of the big corporations.”

One of renewable energy’s biggest drawbacks in Britain is that schemes appear to be the preserve of massive corporations: already wealthy shareholders and landowners reap the benefits, and the rest of us bear the cost of gazing upon industrial wind turbines or solar fields. If communities benefited directly by having a stake in such schemes – or devised them themselves – it would be far more popular, as proved in Denmark and Germany, where “community energy” made up 40% of total renewable energy by the end of 2010.

The British government’s community energy strategy, belatedly drawn up in January, is welcomed by Leo Murray at carbon campaign group 10:10, which is running a Back Balcombe campaign. But Murray would like to see the reform of British regulations that currently make it impossible for co-ops to sell locally generated energy directly to local people.

Instead, REPOWERBalcombe will install small-scale panel systems on farms and other businesses, offering a 20-year contract of dramatically reduced electricity bills (33% in its first installation) in exchange for housing the panels. The co-op makes money from selling excess power into the National Grid (the feed-in tariff scheme) which should provide a 5% annual return for investors. After three years, the investors begin to get their stake back too; after 20 years, the person housing the solar panel gets to keep the technology.

It sounds too good to be true but when I meet Parker, it seems both brilliant and utterly plausible. One challenge for energy co-ops is to find volunteers with relevant skills. Perhaps Balcombe is lucky. Although it employs professionals to install its solar panels, one of its members is a qualified contractor and another, Parker, is as good as one. After starting with his house (now carbon neutral with solar PV, solar thermal and biomass wood pellets for heating), Parker has helped 15 renewable projects in the local area (including his children’s school and his employer’s house), gaining vital practical experience.

Solar sceptics point out that the energy generated from solar in cloudy Britain is much less than in countries further south, and highlight concerns over maintenance costs and reliability. In reality, Parker says, “every system has outperformed its estimates, every year I’ve had it. Quite often, bizarrely, it’s undersold. The economics were much better than installers said.” Real-world solar output estimates are based on Sheffield, so locations to the south tend to outperform their estimates, explains Parker, who has found he further improved performance by choosing optimum south-facing sites. Maintenance costs? In 15 years he’s had none.

Joe Nixon, another of the impressive working people running the group in their spare time, says REPOWERBalcombe only really lack a lawyer to help with contracts. They have, however, been helped by the growing renewables movement, including other co-operatives in the Energy4All group, local energy contractors and 10:10. “That speeds things up massively because you learn from other people’s mistakes,” says Nixon.

Community energy may be worthy but is there an economic catch? Balcombe is not Millionaires’ Row and can a village of 1,800 people raise £300,000? “They are going to sneeze that out,” says 10:10’s Murray. “I anticipate that taking a week.”

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