A film studio in Bristol, England, has launched one of the largest community-powered rooftop solar panels in the UK. Is this a sign that the base energy is finally maturing?
Examining Google Earth images of a former industrial building on the southern outskirts of Bristol, Will Houghton spotted an opportunity.
In its sprawling 7,000 square meter rooftop, Houghton – a project developer with a nonprofit community energy association Bristol Energy Cooperative (BEC) – saw the potential for a flagship solar system powered by people. That plans were underway to turn the old engineering works into a second site for The Bottle Yard Studios, a council-owned film and television studio, was all the better for it.
Now, when TBY2, as the facility has been dubbed, turns on its studio lights later this year, it will be powered primarily by a huge array of 2,000 photovoltaic solar panels generating a total of 1MW of electricity, enough to power the equivalent of 250 households.
Catalyzed by the twin pressures of climate breakdown and a deepening energy crisis – and in a post-private subsidy era of lucrative feed-in-tariff (Fit) payments – baseload energy must grow and think big . All of a sudden, it seems, size matters.
“Tthere is so much decarbonization to be done,” says Houghton. “We made an active decision to try to maximize the size of our projects, to try to install as much solar power 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 have built solar farms in the Lawrence Weston area of the city and in Puriton, near the town of Bridgwater. They also created the The UK’s first home microgrid with battery storagesinking excess energy into a Tesla battery.
Projects are funded through community-sharing offerings, with backers getting a modest annual return for their commitment. BEC has raised £15m since 2011 and reinvests all profits locally by providing grants to community groups for carbon saving initiatives.
But BEC’s partnership with The bottle parkThe advanced extension project rewrites the script.
The co-op brought its fundraising expertise to the table to fill a council budget shortfall, raising £1million in the process. Without it, the local authority would have completed a solar project just a third the size. Instead, the council is taking a significant step towards its 2030 net-zero ambition and benefiting from BEC’s solar power guarantee, priced competitively regardless of current volatility and galloping market. By linking the council’s buildings together in a contractual arrangement called ‘sheathing’, it is expected that excess electricity will be used to power its other properties.
Communities want to get quite meaningfully involved in the fight against climate change
The closure of the Fit program to new applicants in April 2019 inevitably slowed the rush to cover roofs with solar panels. Although it rewards households and communities for everything the renewable energy they produce, its replacement, the Smart Export Guarantee, only pays for excess electricity sold back to the grid at often ridiculously low prices set by energy suppliers, 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 the grant windfall.
“It’s true that big projects are easier to bankroll financially, so it’s a lot easier to get that back in this post-FIT world,” she says. “But I also think they reflect the changing face of community energy. Until now, it has been associated with very small projects, but in reality communities want to be involved in a rather significant way in the fight against climate change. »
For TBY2, decarbonization was integrated into the building from the design stage. In addition to allowing his customers to film in the most sustainable way possible, the solar panel allows him to obtain a sustainability accreditation from Studio Albert, a new industry standard managed 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’re an Albert Accredited Facility, we’ve adhered to that way of working and we expect you to do the same,” says Katherine Nash, Director of Business Operations at The Bottle Yard.
Bottle Yard Studios hosts a range of productions, from Poldark to The Crystal Maze. Image: Kushagra Kavat
Undoubtedly, these are tough times for community energy as the sector adjusts to post-adjustment life, but there are signs it is finding its feet after the dizzying ups and downs of the years. solar roller coaster.
The last report on the state of the sector from Community Energy England, Community Energy Wales and Community Energy Scotland shed some much-needed light on the gloom over the current fuel crisis.
In 2021, community energy groups raised almost £12m for new projects, while spending £15m in local economies. 23 new power generation assets with a capacity of 7.6MW have been installed and the groups report that they have 160 projects underway.
Although the growth rate has slowed since 2017, community energy groups are contributing more to renewable energy than just infrastructure. Their committed local engagement builds trust in green initiatives, expands the conversation around energy efficiency, and drives the transition to cleaner energy sources.
“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 going when we start having to deal with things like insulation and heat pumps in our homes.”
Jess Gitsham (left) and Will Houghton (right) of Bristol Energy Coop. Image: Alex Turner
Community Energy England co-CEO Duncan Law says more government support is needed for the sector to flourish. Currently, only renewable projects generating at least 5 MW can benefit from the contracts for difference regime, 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, literally putting electricity into people’s hands – a welcome reversal of the current status quo.
Thinking big, he believes, is here to stay.
“The unit cost of panels now means that on a large scale they can pay for themselves in two years, and many companies are looking to cut their on-site costs and do the right thing,” Law says.
“This is where community programs can really help – businesses are all in a rush right now for multiple reasons, and community energy can take the spare capital that’s dangling and put it on the roofs in a way really useful.”
Main Image: Bottle Yard Studios