As temperatures soar and global resources come increasingly under threat, the reality of the climate crisis has never been clearer. In this episode, we explore how communities can run their own renewable energy projects, such as YEALM and Brighton Energy and reinvest the profits into their community.

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The full transcript

Neil Roberts – Presenter (NR)- Climate change is a reality.  Twenty of the warmest years on record happened in the last 22 years, and more and more people are taking to the streets to protest against climate breakdown.

Vox Pop 1: I think everyone is coming to the realisation that we can’t go on as we are.  Humans are using far too many resources and they are not renewable. We have got to do something.

Peter Brown (PB): It is the ecology that is so important.  If the ecology dies off, then humans can’t be sustainable. All our drugs and medicines come from plants and animals.

Andrew Moore (AM): People want to know, ‘What can I do?’  Yes, we want to be able to say, ‘Look, we’re saving all this carbon, we’re doing all these great things,’ but, more importantly, by getting people to see what they can do, this is a way of galvanising activity.

NR: But, despite the drastic headlines, the first half of 2019 saw Britain obtain more clean electricity from zero carbon sources than it did from fossil fuels for the first time since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

My name is Neil Roberts and this is The Community Business Fix: the podcast that sheds light on communities taking matters into their own hands, supported by Power to Change: the independent Trust that supports community businesses in England.

In this series we focused on communities taking matters into their own hands, driven by passion, anger, necessity and idealism.

In this last episode of Series 1, we are exploring how communities are approaching climate breakdown through renewable energy.  There is money in it which is why most renewable energy projects are owned by commercial companies at the moment. But more and more communities are coming together to raise the finance to run their own energy projects.  They then reinvest profits back into the local community and do their bit to fight climate change in the process. We went to South Devon to meet one of them.

Peter Brown (PB): Yealm Community Energy is a community organisation to promote the decarbonisation of our community, so that we are aiming to achieve zero emissions over a period of time, and we started off with education and then into practical work.

NR: Yealm Community Energy started life as an environmental group in 2000, formed after founder and chairman, Peter Brown, heard a talk about global warming.  For the first few years, they worked with universities on feasibility studies and hosted sustainability fairs. The idea was to inspire others to do something to combat climate change and cut carbon emissions.  But then they got wind of a proposal by the company Good Energy.

Peter Brown (PB): We had heard that they were looking to put a solar farm on the edge of Newton Ferrers, on one of the farms.  So, we thought, ‘Well, we’ve got to have ownership of this. What’s the point in having renewable energy there and all the money goes somewhere else: to the headquarters of the energy company?’  So, we said, ‘Look, we’ve got a formal energy company. We can’t do this with an environment group.’

NR: And, so, in January 2015, Yealm Community Energy was formed as a community benefits society where every one of the 150 paid-up members has one equal vote and say in how the business is run at the AGM.  Yealm Community Energy was initially supported through funds from the local environment group Peter had set up in 2006.

Peter Brown (PB): Any surplus from the trading of the organisation has got to go into the community not to the members, whereas in a corporate they go to the members.  And that was the whole point of the thing: a) that it was renewable energy and, b) that all the benefit from that in the form of surpluses flowed to the community and did things in the community that could not otherwise be done, because the parish councils have no money.

NR: Good Energy built the Newton Downs Solar Farm, while Yealm Community Energy worked out how they could eventually own it.  But how does a small community organisation go about buying a solar farm worth millions? Often communities miss out on the opportunities; they struggle to raise the capital in time.  Here is Will Walker, programme and investment manager at Power to Change, with a 40-million-pound solution that brings together a number of partners including Big Society Capital.

Community Owned Renewable Energy Partners, or CORE for short, has bought six solar farms around England to preserve them until communities are ready and able to buy them back after three years.

Will Walker (WW): Clearly, communities, to access the sort of finance that is needed to develop or to purchase these projects at scale, is very challenging, really.  The partnership that we have struck with them through CORE has really enabled them to work with us, essentially, to purchase that solar farm, which we will then optimise so that we reduce the running costs, and then put the significant profit, surplus to that project will generate, to community good.

NR: Andrew Moore is a director of Yealm Community Energy.

Andrew Moore (AM): Where we are now is that we have one solar farm of which we own a very small amount.  And, over the course of the next year or so, we will be hoping to gain the loans and equity in order to own it all.  It is certainly a lot of money and we will be talking about somewhere between 12 and 14 million pounds in total. When you sit back and think about that and look at it with a cold and fishy eye, a small shiver goes up your spine; it is a lot of money.  But the key thing here is that you have an organisation which is holding your hand, which is helping you, which has thought through the problems that we had thought through ourselves, but has a solution. That is fantastic. It is amazing, in fact.

We have a second solar farm, which we hope a decision will be taken on later today, in fact, to go ahead, in which case that one will be in the same position: we will own a very small amount initially and then, over the course of the next year or two, we will try and get the loans and the equity in order to be able to control the whole amount.  And that – two solar farms – it will be about 12 megawatts, and that will probably make us one of the largest community enterprises.

NR: As we have heard, Yealm’s income currently comes from CORE’s investment and from the energy the solar farm generates and sells.  This money is reinvested to support all sorts of projects in their community with similar aims to their own. They have already made grants through their community fund to projects as diverse as installing solar panels on a village hall, to creating wildlife friendly areas in a park, to an educational project around bees for a Brownie group.  And they continue to encourage applications to the community fund, awarding grants dependent on a number of priorities picked by local people.

Andrew Moore (AM): Energy poverty, renewable energy and the environment – those three things were top of the list, but there were others as well like education and things for society in general.  Second of all, we knew that this was a long-term issue and that we weren’t going to rush into it. We also have taken a lot of time and effort, not just in doling out the money and choosing who would have what, but in following up so that we are seeing the impact of what is happening; that we can help in certain cases.

NR: Another benefit for the community fund is harder to quantify but no less important.

Andrew Moore (AM): It sparks ideas in people’s heads when you have got a community fund, and, when you have got an idea like renewable energy and the things that you might be able to do – so, you might be able, for instance, to sell the energy locally.  At the moment the technology is not here, but, if you could sell the electricity locally, you could sell it at a lower price than people are paying now, but the producer of electricity – in this case Yealm Community Energy – would get a higher price than it would otherwise.  So, everybody benefits from that. And then you have got the environmental benefits.

But, most of all, what I think it does is to release energy in the community.  So, even in the first year of having a community fund, what has been apparent is the sheer enthusiasm and inspiration people are taking from it to do things that they might not have otherwise done.  It is brilliant.

NR: Bee Wild Yealmpton is one of the local projects that has received a grant from the Yealm Community Energy benefit fund.  Their founder, Kate Hopkins, wanted to set up a wildflower meadow in her community to combat the challenges that bees and other pollinators are facing.

Kate Hopkins: We figured that it fitted in with our aims to have some of the native orchard trees that would have existed here in the past, and we needed to purchase them; spring bulbs and so on to plant in the spring for early pollinators at the beginning of the season; obviously wildflower seeds for the summer.  And we heard about Yealm Community Energy and the fact that they were willing to help local organisations, and we figured that we fitted one of their criteria which was to help, not only the environment – another big part of our work is to work with children in the community. I didn’t want us to be a bunch of old people planting flowers.  I wanted the children to understand the importance of everything and to get some enjoyment from the natural world.

So, we have put on a few community events that have cost money, and Yealm Community Energy has given us quite a generous grant.

NR: South Dartmoor Community Energy are another beneficiary of the Yealm Community Energy Fund.

Sophie Phillips: Yealm have been around a lot longer than we have.  They are our neighbouring community energy organisation. It is great that we can work with them to help people in the area, and it is how community-owned generation should work, really.  So, a community energy project, which is generating an income, which is then used to help people in fuel poverty, it is a really brilliant loop.

We do a lot of home visits, which is where I have just been, which is why I was a bit late – sorry.  I was at a home visit. So, that is the most useful thing: we actually help people in their homes to talk about how to control their heating, whether they need insulation, helping them switch to cheaper suppliers.

Just over the past winter we have just saved 12.8 tonnes of carbon.  That is just from a handful of people switching to a green tariff. So, we would really like to be able to scale that up and help more people and have a much bigger impact.

Andrew Moore (AM): They have already saved more money than we gave them, for clients in the five parishes – that is amazing – together with reducing the amount of energy that people use.  So, it is not just saving money, it is saving energy. And they have got great ideas for things for the future.

NR: This is a great example of sustainable funding that supports community projects, while at the same time doing good for the environment.  Yealm’s members, who are local people, make the funding decisions rather than funders who are far removed. Andrew Moore again.

Andrew Moore (AM): It is to do with unleashing people’s inner – I was going to say ‘needs’ – it is not needs.  Well, it is partly needs, it is partly enthusiasms. It is opening a door a little crack and people being able to say, ‘Hey, there’s something here that we can do.’  And they said, first of all, ‘I want to do it,’ and then they have got an enabling mechanism to do it, which is exactly what has happened to Yealm Community Energy. We knew what we wanted to do.  We couldn’t find a way of enabling it. And, suddenly, with what Power to Change have given us, it is enabled. Now, we are doing exactly the same thing in the community, and, hopefully, they are going to come back and help enable the whole thing again.  So, it is a very positive cycle once it gets going.

NR: And one of those cracks was in the door of the local village hall: a venue for private parties, pop-up tearooms for older people, a walkers’ café and the occasional jazz quartet.  Caroline Storey is treasurer of the Newton and Noss Village Hall.

Caroline Storey: We have got a good south-facing roof and we wanted to put something back into the environment.  We felt that that was a good project, if we could afford it. And the quotes were coming in at around six to seven thousand pounds, which is a lot of money for a hall of our size.  And, so, we heard about the Yealm Community Energy Trust, so we had a chat and put in an application form. And we are absolutely delighted to have received a grant for £4,000 towards the total cost.  And we managed to get it in one day before the Feed-in Tariffs stopped. Literally it was that tight.

NR: Along with the energy the panels create, which, in turn, saves the hall money, what Caroline described as government Feed-in Tariffs also bring around £700 of surplus cash to the hall each year.  But that subsidy has now been removed for any new solar projects. Here is Will Walker from Power to Change to explain what they were and what the loss of them means.

WW: So, a Feed-in Tariff was a government subsidy that was introduced, I think, back in 2011 or so, which paid out a guaranteed price for the energy that was generated from decentralised renewable energy installations: it paid a price for the energy generated and it paid a price for the energy exported back onto the grid.  And that was really critical for the growth of community energy because it provided a kind of government-backed, index-linked guaranteed revenue stream for community energy projects and, indeed, other renewable energy projects.

NR: The financial certainty that provided to community groups allowed them to plan and to fundraise, and underpinned the community energy business model.  So, what has happened since their removal?

WW: It has had a huge impact.  I think what you have seen, certainly from the research that the likes of Community Energy England and others have done, is that there are just no or very few new entrants entering the market.  There are a lot of established, very successful community businesses, community energy groups out there that are still doing great stuff, but it has made it very hard for new groups to enter the market when there isn’t a tried and tested available business model for them to just get behind.

NR: The effect is that the growth in the community energy sector has now stalled, although in England community energy projects generate enough power to supply 64,000 homes, and, in 2018, gave £978,000 of their profit to local good causes through community benefit funds.

So, what are Power to Change doing to support new community energy projects?

WW: The Next Generation Programme is an approximately four million pound grant programme that we are running with our partners, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and a host of other partners that have been brought together in an expert consortium, to work very closely with these groups.  And it is aiming to do three things, basically.

Firstly, it is very much aligned with what we are trying to do through CORE and our buying of the solar farms: putting them back into community hands and maximising the community benefit from them.  And the grant programme does this by helping these community businesses to develop themselves as fully-fledged businesses in their own right, raise the funding to take the ownership of the solar farms and put the profits back into the local community.  And there is a range of support and grants that the grant programme is helping them do that with.

Secondly, is the kind of innovation piece.  So, we have an open fund which is open for applications right now until mid-September, and that is really designed to stimulate as much innovation in the community business sector as possible, to help them transition in this post-subsidy and rapidly-changing energy sector as described.

And, finally, we have some funding to develop a peer mentoring and learning scheme.  So, really, Power to Change is very much more than just a funder. We invest, I think, 5% of our endowment in research.  So, we are really looking to maximise the learning and the impact that we have through our grants and investments.

NR: Brighton Energy Coop is one of the community energy organisations who have received support through the Next Generation Programme.  The programme is helping them explore electric vehicles. Damian Tow, cofounder, saw an opportunity that charging up of electric vehicles, also known as EVs, will have on power generation.

Damian Tow: It seemed to me that we could explore whether a certain level of usage of EV charging at certain locations could, effectively, replace the Feed-in Tariff or provide a top up to just selling electricity to the site.  An example might be a sports centre where we could sell electricity most of the time for, say, 8p or 9p to the sports centre, but, at certain points, we maybe have to charge 30p for an hour’s charging at an EV charge point, and that blend of two different levels of income stream, we are hoping, will provide sufficient to make the economic model for the [0:17:46] work.

It has been great to have support from something like Next Generation, where, if we were to risk our own money as a small entity, it would be quite a gamble to put the time in and pay for all that capital equipment, but, having a grant where we can test it out and research on behalf of the community energy sector nationally is a great opportunity.

NR: While Damian Tow is a relative newcomer, Ray Holland is a veteran of both the UK and worldwide energy sector, including experience of decentralised energy in Africa.  A codirector of Yealm Community Energy, he has worked in the industry for over 30 years and has seen massive changes.

Ray Holland: Over 10 years it has changed from being all centralised power going one way to a huge number of windfarms, solar farms, battery storage.  It is changing so rapidly that it is, as far as I can see, unstoppable.

When you have got something like 800 million people in Africa who don’t have good electricity but they can use solar energy to create a mini grid and supply their own community.  So, there is that community aspect. Where, originally, in the UK, electricity had been generated locally and then it became national – it was all interconnected – so, we have rather forgotten about that idea.  So, it is sort of coming back to the idea that, actually, you can do it locally.

NR: And, in unstable times, a decentralised energy model means communities can be more in control of their energy, making them more resilient.  It is not just about installing solar panels. There will be a whole range of things all of us will have to do to make our homes and our lives carbon neutral, and local community advisers and suppliers will be better placed to help and to lead the way.  Here is Will from Power to Change again.

WW: Some of the more kind of intractable changes that people will need to be making in their households, for instance, in terms of solid wall insulation or whatever it might be – installation of heat pumps and things like that – I think the community angle there of having a trusted, impartial intermediary on the ground, potentially is a much better way of engaging people and starting that conversation than a private company landing on your doorstep and trying to sell you something.  So, I think there is huge potential for community energy in that market.

NR: Yealm Community Energy are well placed for that and are going from strength to strength.  They are aiming to take on full ownership of Newton Downs Solar Farm within three years, and are hoping to acquire a second farm and nearby Creacombe.  Planning consent has now been granted and, when it comes on stream, they will be generating electricity equivalent to the use of 10,000 residents a year.  Yealm Community Energy director, Andrew Moore, again.

Andrew Moore (AM): The plan is that that is going to break ground in the coming month or so, be commissioned in November and December, and come online next year.  It is about maximising the value for the community that you can get out of it, and those are things that are being explored. But it is going to substantially increase the amount of money that is going to go into the community fund over the lifetime of the project.

NR: Supporting Yealm with their Next Generation Programme will be Power to Change.  Here is Will Walker on the nuts and bolts of what they will be offering and what they can offer other community businesses.

WW: So, Yealm, that is the first part of Next Gen.  So, Yealm have access to support from our delivery partner consortium to help them with the nuts and bolts of being a community energy company: things like developing a long-term business plan, looking at board governance, looking at their social environmental impact plan, helping them to really engage community and prepare the community for the raising of funding for the community when we transition that solar farm into community ownership.  So, it is really trying to support them on that process and help them develop as a thriving community business.

NR: Even though Yealm Community Energy is doing amazing work already, it really is just the beginning for what is a long-term infrastructure project.  Yealm Community Energy will spend the next few years raising capital to buy the remaining shares in the two solar farms and will continue to fund local projects.

They have proved that an economic, as well as an environmental benefit can be achieved.  It has been a challenge, but, as we have seen in all of the shows in this first series, when people come together with a single vision, the will and the wherewithal can be found.  The information is out there. There are people who have done it, who would be more than willing to help, and there is funding and expertise from organisations like Power to Change.

Here are some final words of advice from Will Walker.

WW: There have been polls out recently that really show people’s awareness and concern for these issues is at an all-time high, and I think, actually, just talking to your neighbours, talking to your peers about this, finding out what they think about it and trying to reach out and connect with people, find out what is already going, I think, more often than not, there is a group at the end of your street that is already doing stuff.  So, I think it is linking up with people. Don’t try and do it all on your own. I think there is definitely an issue of burnout in the community sector. So, it is trying to collaborate and build on what is already happening in this space.

I think there is a huge amount of learning from projects and activities that have already been.  I would say look online, reach out to Community Energy England, Community Energy Hub. There is a huge resource of information out there on the internet.

NR: And a good place to start is the Power to Change website:  There is also a wealth of practical advice and inspiring stories in our series of podcasts.  Just search for The Community Business Fix on your podcast app.

I hope you have enjoyed this first series of The Community Business Fix and taken inspiration from the stories we have told, be it a community café providing a safe space for its diverse clientele in Manchester, to a Turner Prize-winning housing project in Liverpool, to a refurbished leisure centre in Stocksbridge and a community-run library in Corbett.

Every community we visited has come together to meet its own needs using the expertise and energy of local people.  And you can too.

This is the last episode in Series 1, and we will be back soon to share more inspiring community business stories.

Thanks for listening to this Fieldwork production, commissioned by Power to Change.  It was presented by me, Neil Roberts, with research and production by Curtis James, co-production and sound and music by Simon James, writing and executive production by Chris Paling.