A film studio in Bristol, England, has launched one of the largest community-powered rooftop solar arrays in the UK. Is it a sign that grassroots energy is finally coming of age?
Poring over Google Earth images of a defunct industrial building on the southern fringe of Bristol, Will Houghton spied opportunity.
In its sprawling, 7,000 sq metre rooftop, Houghton – project developer with community energy nonprofit Bristol Energy Cooperative (BEC) – saw potential for a flagship, people-powered solar scheme. That plans were afoot to turn the former engineering works into a second site for The Bottle Yard Studios, a council-owned film and TV studio, was all the better.
Now when TBY2, as the facility has been christened, flicks on its studio lights later this year, it will be predominantly powered by a vast array of 2,000 solar PV panels generating a combined 1MW of electricity, enough to fuel the equivalent of 250 homes.
Catalysed by the twin pressures of climate breakdown and a deepening energy crisis – and in a post-subsidy era starved of lucrative feed-in tariff (Fit) payments – grassroots energy is having to grow up and think big. All of a sudden, it seems, size matters.
“There’s so much decarbonisation to be done,” says Houghton. “We’ve made an active decision to try and maximise the size of our projects, to try and get as much solar installed as possible.”
BEC has been around for 11 years, fixing smaller arrays to the roofs of community-owned buildings in the greater Bristol area. They’ve built solar farms in the Lawrence Weston area of the city and at Puriton, near the town of Bridgwater. They’ve also created the UK’s first domestic housing microgrid with battery storage, sinking surplus power into a Tesla battery.
Projects are funded through community share offers, with backers netting a modest annual return for their pledge. BEC has raised £15m since 2011, and reinvests all profits locally by awarding grants to community groups for carbon-saving initiatives.
But BEC’s partnership with The Bottle Yard’s state-of-the-art expansion project rewrites the script.
The co-op brought its funding expertise to the table to plug a city council budget shortfall, raising £1m in the process. Without it, the local authority would have realised a solar project just a third of the size. Instead, the council takes a meaningful step towards its 2030 net zero ambition, and benefits from the surety of BEC’s solar-generated electricity, fixed at a competitive price free of the current, runaway market volatility. By linking council buildings together under a contractual arrangement called ‘sleeving’, it is intended that surplus electricity will be used to power its other properties.
Communities want to get involved in tackling climate change in quite a significant way
Closing the Fit scheme to new applicants in April 2019 inevitably dialled back the fervent rush to cover rooftops with solar panels. While it rewards households and communities for all the renewable power they generate, its replacement, the Smart Export Guarantee, only pays for surplus electricity sold back to the grid at often measly prices set by energy providers, hampering the viability of small projects.
But upping their game, says BEC communications manager Jess Gitsham, is more than just a natural response to the sun finally setting on subsidy bonanza.
“It’s true that big projects are easier to stack up financially, so it’s much easier to get that return in this post feed-in-tariff world,” she says. “But I also think they reflect the changing face of community energy. Until now it’s been associated with very small schemes, but actually, communities want to get involved in tackling climate change in quite a significant way.”
For TBY2, decarbonisation was embedded in the building from the design stage. Besides enabling its clients to film as sustainably as possible, the solar array stands it in good stead for earning an Albert studio sustainability accreditation, a new industry standard run by Bafta.
“It gives us the leverage and the legitimacy to say to our filming clients, ‘OK, you want to come and film at The Bottle Yard. We are an Albert-accredited facility, we’ve signed up to this way of working and we expect you to do the same’,” says The Bottle Yard’s business operations manager, Katherine Nash.
Undoubtedly, these are challenging times for community energy as the sector adjusts to life post-Fit, but there are signs it is finding its feet after the dizzying highs and lows of the ‘solar coaster’ years.
The latest state of the sector report from Community Energy England, Community Energy Wales and Community Energy Scotland shines some much-needed light on the gloom cast by the ongoing fuel crisis.
2021 saw community energy groups raise almost £12m for new projects, while spending £15m in local economies. 23 new electricity generation assets with 7.6MW capacity were installed, and groups report they have 160 projects in the pipeline.
Although the rate of growth has slowed since 2017, community energy groups bring more to renewables than infrastructure alone. Their committed local engagement builds trust in green initiatives, growing the conversation around energy efficiency and spurring on the transition to cleaner sources of power.
“It’s really important that people are directly involved,” says Houghton. “Because otherwise, it’s going to be a real struggle to keep the momentum when we start having to deal with things like insulation and heat pumps in our homes.”
Community Energy England’s co-CEO Duncan Law says more government support is needed for the sector to really hit its stride. Currently, only renewable projects generating at least 5MW can benefit from the Contracts for Difference scheme, essentially a 15-year price guarantee.
But he also says advances in battery storage, coupled with the falling cost of solar panels, will allow local generators to hoard their daytime surplus and sell it back to the grid at peak demand, putting power very literally in the hands of the people – a welcome reversal of the current status quo.
Thinking big, he believes, is here to stay.
“The unit cost of panels now means that at large scale, they can pay off in two years, and a lot of businesses are looking to reduce their on-site costs and do the right thing,” says Law.
“That’s where community schemes can really help – businesses are all squeezed at the moment for multiple reasons, and community energy can take spare capital that’s rattling around and put it on roofs in a really useful way.”
Main image: Christopher Walken films The Outlaws at The Bottle Yard Studios (credit: BBC/Amazon Prime Video)