In 2006, inspired by a community hall showing of Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, I joined my local sustainability group, Sustainable Charlbury, in my home town of Charlbury. The group had been set up by Liz Reason, an energy consultant with over 30 years experience and now specialising in sharing knowledge and skills for low energy buildings. We organised Open Eco-home days, films, a light bulb library, thermal imaging of homes and visits to solar farms.
It was our visit to the solar farm at Westmill near Swindon that proved to be a turning point and I suggested to Liz that we should broaden our ambitions and develop our own solar farm to serve our local community.
Fortunately we found a supportive partner on our doorstep! Lord Rotherwick of the neighbouring Cornbury Park Estate, himself a keen advocate of achieving energy independence in the UK, suggested an ideal site, south facing and close to an electricity substation.
Generous support was then given by Low Carbon Hub, providing technical advice and seed money for some initial set-up activities; these were vital to getting the project off the ground. We felt part of something and were given the confidence to push on. Amazingly, in no time, we managed to form a project team of experienced and skilled volunteers from within the town of Charlbury.
Als Vowles came on board as technical expert - Southill Solar will have the benefit of her years of experience in the sector, including working in the team that developed some of the UK's first large-scale solar farms (9 solar parks built in 2011 alone!) Als currently works with Low Carbon Hub.
Charlie Clews, a landscape architect, drew up designs for a sensitive layout of the solar panel arrays whilst Dr Guy Parker, a leading ecologist in solar farm development, advised on planting proposals to increase the biodiversity of the site. Local heritage consultant Jody O’Reilly came forward offering her advice. We were also the first community group to receive the RCEF grant to support feasibility studies for community energy projects.
The turning point: Bring Your Brolly Day
Community engagement was vital to enlisting support for the project and a survey was handed out to the 1600 households in Charlbury, Finstock and Fawler. A 20% return of these demonstrated great enthusiasm for the project.
The planning application was submitted early in 2014 but turned down on the grounds that the ‘visual impact of the solar farm outweighed the benefits’.
Whilst disappointed we were undeterred and came up with the idea of a ‘Bring Your Brolly Day’ to try to address this issue of visual impact.
For me this has been one of the greatest highlights of the project. 100 enthusiastic members of our community joined us on the site with umbrellas to be photographed along a reduced number of grid lines to show how the solar panels would look at various vantage points around the site. Charlie Clews produced visual maps to demonstrate that a reduction in the number of panels along with moving them to the lower slopes of the field significantly reduced the visual impact of the solar farm.
@@Investing in Southill is good for the environment and community and good financial sense@@
Ecological and biodiversity benefits were expanded upon with the proposal to rebuild stone walls, improve hedgerows and plant wild flower meadows and orchards.
Importantly the project would also generate community benefit funds to help with improving the energy performance of new and existing community buildings.
Planning approval was granted in July 2015 and pre-application for the Feed-in-Tariff was submitted just 3 weeks before these were removed due to the change in government subsidy. It definitely felt like we were on a solar roller coaster.
With the downs came the ups. In November 2015 Charlie Clews and the Southill project won an award for Local Landscape Planning at the National Landscape Institute Awards.
The investment opportunity
Southill Community Energy was set up as a community benefit group in November 2015 so that members could be offered the opportunity to join the project and invest. The share offer was launched on February 17th to raise £3,000,000 to fund the installation of the solar farm this summer.
Join us - help us make it happen!
Investing in Southill Community Energy is a triple bottom-line investment: good for the environment, good for the community and good financial sense.
It offers a good stable return of 5% for 25 years beating anything on offer from the banks right now. With a minimum investment of £250, this is a great chance to do something to provide for your retirement, a child’s future or just a rainy day.
Our ambition has been to produce an exemplar community solar farm model, one that a community can call it’s own. Southill Solar would have been impossible without the level of community involvement and support that we have achieved.