The project is the first fully community owned social housing solar venture
How solar power came to a Brixton council estate
25th April, 2012
Following a successful share issue, the UK's first 100 per cent community owned inner-city social housing solar power project went live last month. Mark Briggs visited to find out more
The Loughborough Estate in southwest London is not the most obvious location for an energy revolution. But nestled in among the other 30s, 40s and 50s high rises you find just that, on top of Elmore House. Here is a pioneering inner-city co-operative energy project of152 solar panels owned by 81 different investors.
‘Its got to be one of the best views in London,' says Matt Mann, of Southern Solar, the company that installed the panels, looking out across London from the rooftop. Battersea Power Station to the left, Canary Wharf to the right, and everything in between, including the Shard, whose summit the day I visited was obscured by clouds.
Even as the rain begins to come down Matt proudly tells me the panels are still producing electricity. ‘The lift we came up in is run by these panels. The rest is sold back to the national grid and the profit returned to the investors,' he says.
The investors are 81 individuals who, by each contributing between £250 and £20,000 raised the required £58,000 within three weeks. No corporate or local business funding was required and 70 per cent live within two miles of Elmore House. Investors will receive up to three per cent of the profit back in dividends with the remaining profit going towards a Community Energy Efficiency Fund.
Back on the roof, Southern Solar had to work on an already existing structure with chimney stacks, as well as the roof access, shading parts of the roof, in order to position the panels for maximum yield.
‘In ideal conditions, they can provide 37 kWp - enough power for roughly 12 homes,' Matt tells me. This is the third community owned project the company have been involved in, and Matt has seen both environmental and social benefits to renewable energy schemes.
‘I think we've got a culture of use and abuse when it comes to energy and our natural resources, when you get more connected you start to appreciate it more. I've seen it many times, in the vast majority of people we install solar systems for. They do it because they believe in it, but once they've got it, they start to interact with it more. It changes their habits.'
The price of solar panels is dropping all the time, and is likely to continue to fall with new, cheaper imports coming from China. The issue of feed-in tariffs has been synonymous with solar panels over the last few years, with constant changes confusing and isolating prospective users. Over the last 28 months the tariffs have changed seven times. They changed half way through this project meaning installations on other local buildings had to be put on hold, they are due to change again in July. Despite this, Matt says now is a great time to invest in solar panels.
‘The return on investment of a system of this sort of size is actually better than it was 12-18 months ago. And nobody knows that. They think the feed in tariff has closed,' he says.
‘The government have, with all their changes created a lot of confusion, and lost trust. But the fact of the matter remains, the cost of installing a system now has dropped by about a third. Proportionally you get more from the tariff.'
With the technical side covered Matt calls up the co-founder of Brixton Energy, Agamemnon Otero, a Uruguayan born New Yorker who moved to Brixton 11 years ago. To say his enthusiasm is infectious would be to down play it: it's highly contagious. With the rain still coming down he suggests we move to Brixton Village for warmth, shelter and coffee. He continues talking throughout the bus journey, stopping only briefly to wave enthusiastically at someone who is something to do with housing in the area, I didn't catch his name, and Agamemnon is already on to a new topic.
The project was conceived 14 months ago, although those involved were working in similar areas before. The council had tried something similar four years ago, but without success. This time round they approached all sorts of building around Brixton, including the iconic Ritzy Cinema, before going for Elmore House.
‘Some of the buildings on the estate, including Elmore House were having their roofs redone, the government changed the tariffs in November, but we just ploughed through, we wanted to get one done.'
The main challenge, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the paper work, ‘A community energy group working on social housing, it's a first. Dealing with social housing and councils, there was a lot of bureaucracy. At one point it looked like it would have to go to cabinet
‘Lambeth is trying to be the first co-operative council. Those at the top, and those on the ground have been 100 per cent behind us. There's just a lot of bureaucracy in the middle.
‘We've been through this now, this project is ready to go on other estates. We have the structure, we have expertise.'
Brixton Energy has more projects in the pipeline, three of which they are hoping to sign off on next week, another three are happening in various locations across South London.
The thing that most struck me about this entire project, is how proud everyone I spoke to was to be involved. Afsheen Rashid, who works for Lambeth Council, called me from her holiday in Italy because ‘Agger' told her I was writing this story.
‘They've turned round this project in just over a year. That they have been extremely successful shows exactly what you can do. We're shrinking in size because of funding cuts. Co-operatives are how we can empower residents to provide the services themselves. I've been heavily involved and I'm passionate. I want to see it move forward.'
The Co-Op model adopted by Brixton Solar allows people to invest what they can, the number of shares they receive differs, but all decisions are made on a one investor, one vote system. Susan Seehan invested £250 ‘I have been pondering solar panels on my own house for several years and I simply don't have the right roof. It would also cost me a lot more money than I have put into Brixton Energy - the minimum investment is just £250. I would have to spend 40 times that to get any meaningful amount of solar panels on my house.'
‘We need to see more of these types of projects,' concludes Matt Mann, ‘If you talk to somebody from Denmark, they've been doing these things since the 70s and 80s.'
Agamemnon Otero sums it up, ‘The whole point of it being cooperatively owned is that they get to invest, and then get a return. Not just money, but they get skilled up. People need to see it benefiting people in their local community. You need to be the change you want to see, not in the future but in the here and now.'
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