Solar farm mutual shines on community

A new solar farm is part of the Big60Million community energy project which is part owned by local villagers.

Solar farm mutual shines on communityThe group has a three further farms in Kent, Warwickshire and Stratford-upon-Avon, with planning permission secured for a fourth in Swindon is spread out over 23 acres.

Big60 boss Toddington Harper was passionate about the benefits of solar power and felt the Willersey farm, with its poor soil unsuitable for growing crops, was the perfect site.

A very small but vocal group of locals, he says, had other ideas. Soon the Daily Mail was running a story headlined “Hands off our views”, talking about German invasions thanks to Big60’s solar partner Belectric, headquartered in Bavaria.

“We just thought ‘this is not right, what we are trying to do is a good thing’,” says Mr Harper. When he finally spoke with the main opponent of the farm, everything became clear. “‘What’s in it for me?’ was her simple message, so we took that on board and thought, ‘let’s make everything in it for her’.”

So the company devised its five-year solar bond, each costing £60 and paying a fixed annual rate of 7%. The electricity from the 4MW farm – producing enough power in one year to meet the demands of 1,100 homes – is sold into the National Grid to generate 40% of the return, with the remaining 60% coming from government subsidies, which are guaranteed for 20 years.

With new subsidies falling, the solar bonds launched for the latest farms offer 6% interest, with the split closer to 50/50. But Mr Harper says longer term, thanks in large part to the falling cost of solar panels, the business model will not rely on government support.

The Willersey bond offer raised £4 million in two months from hundreds of individual investors, with 20% being bought by local residents. The rest came on the back of adverts in the national press.

Many were not interested in the environmental benefits of the farm, but simply wanted a good cash return from the solar farm.

But Big60Million is about much more than money. Only 5% of Willersey solar farm’s ground is covered by the infrastructure needed to support the solar panels, which means the vast majority of the land is given over to encourage biodiversity.

Beehives have been brought in as part of wider push to encourage biodiversity on the farm

Local beekeepers built hives to boost dwindling bee populations, while various bird and bat boxes, as well as habitats for insects and reptiles, have been placed across the farm to give wildlife the chance to flourish. Local schools also visit the farm so children can learn about the benefits of clean energy.

In the meantime, the company has big plans to build more solar farms. “Our vision is that each town and village in the country should have something similar to Willersey,” Mr Harper says.

In fact, Big60Million is at the forefront of a fundamental shift in the way that energy is generated and distributed in the UK. Indeed the government estimates there are already 5,000 community energy projects in the country, which could generate up to 15% of the country’s total renewable electricity generation by 2020. The potential is huge – in Germany, community energy already makes up more than 40% of renewable output.

What was meant to be nothing more than a good investment opportunity has turned into so much more.

April 27, 2015  Tags: , , , , ,   Posted in: Building Businesses, Business Survival, Business Win, Gloucestershire Businesses, Growing Business, Growing Economy, Technological Businesses, Uncategorized

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