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Empowering communities

Meet two women who are bringing renewable energy – and all its benefits – to their communities
Empowering communities

Lesley Bennett, Chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

Lesley Bennett, Chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

For Lesley Bennett, chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy (WWCE), community energy was a commitment rather than a career choice; she works as a volunteer in the sector because it brings together issues about which she cares deeply: tackling climate change and supporting local communities.

With 20 years’ experience in local government, she says ‘politics is a messy, unpleasant business. Issues are often fraught and complex – but no one with good information could possibly doubt that climate change and sustainability are vital issues that affect us all and transcend political debate.’

Convinced by the power of community-owned renewable energy projects in the fight against climate change, Lesley joined WWCE at the first share offer. Now WWCE has five community-owned schemes under its belt: three rooftop projects and two solar arrays.

The array at Chelworth is on an industrial estate next to Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Blakehill Nature reserve, and the Braydon Manor array, in partnership with MongooseEnergy, is near Purton, Wiltshire. It’s the first split-ownership solar site in the UK – and one of the UK’s largest community solar schemes.

The Braydon Manor solar farm will produce 9.1MW of clean energy a year – enough to supply over 2,500 houses – and save 3,900 tonnes of carbon over each of the 25 years planned for the project. Construction of the solar array started in September 2015 and was finished three months later; on 31 December it was connected to the grid and it has been exporting electricity ever since.

‘Power is synonymous with strength, manliness and aggressive things. I prefer to think of what we are doing as empowering. Renewable energy is a concept that empowers more people to lead more comfortable, better lives without jeopardising life quality for the rest of the world. Join the community energy movement to empower a better life!’

Chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

Getting community projects off the ground was not the only goal for Lesley; at WWCE there is an equally strong focus on ensuring the solar farms continue to serve wildlife and biodiversity long after they are erected and connected.

WWCE works with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, of which Lesley was previously a trustee, to create detailed Biodiversity Management Plans to ensure the solar farms enhance and enrich the land they sit on. Over the past few months great crested newts, damselflies, butterflies, bats, rabbits, birds and even some roe deer have been logged at the Chelworth site.

Prior to conversion, the land beneath the Braydon Manor array was exhausted pasture that had been used for horses destined for France and the meat trade. WWCE plans to transform it into a wildflower meadow in the heart of the Braydon Forest.

It will be sown with green hay from a nearby Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Nature reserve and managed with sheep rather than by mowing. Birds and bats will be encouraged to use surrounding hedgerows and trees for nesting and brooding and beehives and bug nests will be established.

The solar array will act as a biodiversity bank and a home for the pollinators that will enrich the surrounding farmland.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the Braydon Manor array received the Best Renewable Energy Scheme award at 2015’s Regen SW awards ceremony. It was recognised as an exceptional project in the community energy sector – and the best standalone renewable energy project in the South West.

‘I think our role is not only to look for new projects but to increase awareness of the issues of renewable energy, sustainability and climate change within our community’, Lesley tells us. ‘Energy is at the heart of our comfortable and prosperous society: we take it even more for granted than we do the water coming out of our taps. But our use of energy reshapes the world our children will live in. We need to be engaged in energy efficiency in every way, from using the best lightbulbs to setting up local generation and grids and batteries. We should be as proud of our local schemes as we are of our local parks!’

The merry-go-round of government policy on renewable and community energy has proved the greatest challenge for Lesley and WWCE; ‘Last year hardly a month went past without the government cutting back on FiTs, turbines and anything else it could think of ’, she remembers. Thankfully, the obstacles and challenges haven’t put Lesley off. ‘We will just have to be more inventive!’, she says. ‘I look forward to working with other community groups to make the world understand that community energy is a force to be used and developed.’

Penny Shepherd MBE,  Chair of Orchard Community Energy

Penny Shepherd MBE, Chair of Orchard Community Energy

Penny Shepherd’s services to sustainable economic development and socially responsible investment have been recognised with an MBE. She has many years’ experience in ethical investment and was herself a personal investor in some early community energy projects. ‘Joining the board of Orchard Community Energy was a great way to use my skills to make a difference close to where I live’, Penny tells us.

As a community benefit society (BenCom), Orchard Community Energy conducts business for the benefit of the community, returning profits to the local area. It develops community-owned renewable energy projects that reduce the impact of climate change, increase energy security, generate community benefits and support the local economy.

The BenCom was set up in partnership with Mongoose Energy by a ‘brilliant group’ of committed locals and experienced professionals, who worked together to move a solar farm in Kent into community ownership.

The 5MW ground-mounted solar array at Orchard Farm is already operational, and should generate around 5,020MWh of renewable electricity in its first year – enough to power around 1,250 homes. It’s expected to save 44,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. To date, the launch of the bond offer has been the highlight of Penny’s time at Orchard Community Energy, as it will raise the funds required to pay back the money loaned by the project’s developers.

Investors in the bond offer, which has a £500 minimum investment threshold, are expected to receive 5.5% interest per year, with additional benefits going to Swale and Medway through a community fund.

‘In its first five years of operation, we estimate that the Orchard Farm solar array will generate at least £10,000 per annum for community projects in Swale and Medway’, Penny tells us. ‘The amount will increase substantially in the later stages of the project; we expect to deliver a community fund of up to £3m over 25 years.’

‘Working with Mongoose Energy brings together expertise and experience from across the UK. Its brave vision of enabling community energy projects has guided us through the process of acquisition. We have been fortunate to pull on past successes and feel in safe hands when it comes to navigating some of the many policy changes that have been taking place.’

Chair of Orchard Community Energy

The fund will support local projects that focus on areas including fuel poverty, wildlife conservation, climate change mitigation and carbon reduction – such as waste projects and low-carbontransport initiatives.

Attaining energy security from community-owned renewable projects that offer a good return on investment sounds like the stuff dreams are made of – and this in itself is one of the greatest obstacles for Penny. ‘People have a natural and understandable suspicion of things that sound too good to be true’, she tells us. ‘Add to that ever-changing government policy on renewables and community ownership – a complex story with many facets that are new and need explaining. They’re all barriers to making things happen.’

Still, Penny has found that people become far more comfortable and enthusiastic about the model once they start to see the outcome of their first investments. Forecasting 5.5% when interest rates are at 0.25%, we can see why.

Click here for more on Mongoose Energy and its community energy projects.

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