The Future of Solar Is Small

Local community projects are already powering parts of London and could pave the way for a green transition.

By Amandas Ong, a freelance journalist.
The paneled roof of Blackfriars Bridge, currently the world’s largest solar-powered bridge, is seen from the south bank of the River Thames in London on July 4, 2017.
The paneled roof of Blackfriars Bridge, currently the world’s largest solar-powered bridge, is seen from the south bank of the River Thames in London on July 4, 2017. Leon Neal/Getty Images

British weather is synonymous with gloom and overcast skies. However, a quietly expanding movement has been working hard to prove there might just be enough sun to power a greener future. Spurred on by a drastic decline of 82 percent over nine years in the cost of solar panel installations, community-led energy projects are now generating enough electricity to power thousands of homes and buildings. Profits are typically poured back into localized, grassroot environmental initiatives or to help people struggling with fuel poverty.

Some of these community-owned efforts are aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of solar energy in the country’s most economically deprived areas. In South London, the nonprofit Brixton Energy has been running one of the world’s first inner-city, cooperatively owned renewable energy projects since 2011. A solar power station, which was funded by a total community share offer of $73,000, now sits on the roof of a social housing block. At the time of the project’s conception, 90 percent of the shareholders were living within a mile of the actual block.

An army of volunteers worked for more than 2,500 hours to develop and install the project, which has helped reduce annual carbon emissions by an estimated 14 tons. Today, the project has raised $218,685 to buy solar power that serves more than 100 homes on the estate, and its success has been replicated across two other neighborhoods in the vicinity. Not only do residents in the area receive a reduction on their energy bills: $82,482 of Brixton Energy’s income goes back to the community in initiatives like debt management, fuel poverty advice, and educational grants for young people living where the projects are located. The idea is to address youth unemployment by offering training schemes in the renewable energy sector.

Agamemnon Otero, one of the co-founders of Repowering, an organization that helped start Brixton Energy, has had experience working on more than 40 renewable energy projects in urban areas. “[In London], the sun is good from March until October, and the majority of our returns come in those months. It’s not Mordor, and it’s actually very viable,” Otero said. “For domestic annual consumption of electricity in the U.K., you can probably generate what you need with 4 kilowatts. It can absolutely be delivered.” He said the issues Repowering encountered were less logistical and more sociopolitical: Devolving ownership to local people proved to be a trickier task than expected with a task force of legal experts involved. Repowering has since developed five more projects situated in social housing. In the meantime, Otero has moved on to become director of Energy Garden, a community-led urban transformation project. He and his team work with transport providers to create 35 renewable energy gardens across the London Overground suburban rail network.

Another small-scale project that has found itself creating a wider impact beyond its modest beginnings is Solar SOAS, an on-campus initiative comprising 114 solar panels at SOAS University of London that has been running since 2016. “As far as we know, we were the first to start a community energy project on a university,” said Isobel Annan, co-founder of UniSolar, the community benefit society created to run Solar SOAS. She was a founding member of a core group of 10 volunteers who were involved in the initial installation, which was crowdfunded by staff, students, and management. However, the team has decreased in size due to one of solar energy’s major benefits: It requires little maintenance once the panels are in place. Annan and her teammates have since graduated, and she now works as a lawyer specializing in energy. Solar SOAS continues to provide electricity to the university, which enrolls around 5,000 students. Some of the electricity it generates is also sold, with the money received being further invested in student-led clean energy projects.

Annan said one of the most rewarding things about starting Solar SOAS is the ripple effect it had on similar projects around the world. A student she got to know through Solar SOAS returned to Greece to start another community energy movement. Another friend who heard about Solar SOAS decided to kick-start an analogous project at Australian National University. In her mind, that’s how a greener economy will take shape: “It’s just too scary to sit back and wait for the government to do something. Actually, you can make a huge dent in carbon emissions by just working with a few people in your community, doing something for yourselves. And that’s a really positive idea,” she said.

For those living outside of London, there is the scope to work even more ambitiously. Westmill Solar Cooperative, which has been located on the border of Oxford and Wiltshire, consists of more than 20,000 solar panels sprawled over 30 acres of land. Its founders believe it is the world’s largest cooperatively run solar farm and is co-owned by an estimated 1,500 members. It currently generates enough electricity to serve almost 2,000 households.

Tom Parkinson, the chair of Westmill Solar Cooperative, said 2020 was an excellent year for solar energy due to the record amount of sunshine the U.K. received. “The wonderful thing about all of this is … normal people, me or you, can own a power station, and that in itself is quite an important message,” Parkinson said. “The money [we earn] also stays within the community, which is good.” Around $59,000 was redistributed back to local organizations last year. Beneficiaries included a community cycling group, a bus service providing rural transport to reduce car journeys, a school program to help children understand the importance of ameliorating climate change, and several others.

Representing the interests of all these projects is Community Energy England (CEE), an umbrella body that has seen its membership grow to more than 300 community energy organizations over the course of just seven years. CEE reported that community-owned solar energy projects increase from 2016 to 2018 despite severe investment cuts of almost 80 percent, including slashes to government subsidies for localized electricity generation. It also states that community-owned electricity generation across the United Kingdom from solar energy projects has reached 155.4 megawatts—enough to power approximately 29,000 households. Although wind and hydroelectric projects also help minimize reliance on fossil fuels, they require considerably more labor than the solar alternative, a representative from CEE said. “There’s very little that can go wrong, provided that [the solar panels] are properly installed,” he said. “There are no mechanical complexities.”

Advocacy groups working in the sector hope this progress will encourage more people to help the United Kingdom reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. There is promising news on this front: As of March, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are thought to be 51 percent below 1990 levels. The United Kingdom is also the first G-7 country that has pledged to cut carbon emissions on such a scale. But CEE believes more needs to be done—and urgently. In a response to a government white paper on green energy, the CEE laments that policy changes in the past five years have “disabled a passionate and dynamic sector that was more than doubling in size every year between 2014-2017,” and that hundreds of community energy groups struggled to carry projects into financial viability.

CEE has called for the reinstatement of the $13.7 million Urban Community Energy Fund, which was discontinued in 2016 but had previously offered grants of up to $27,000 to help communities start their own renewable energy projects. It has also urged the government to reverse a hike on consumption taxes levied on energy-saving measures, such as solar panels and batteries. As recent news emerged that the global energy supply chain is heavily dependent on slave labor in Xinjiang, China, it is even more critical for the government to step in, particularly to help ease the financial burden on those wishing to turn to more ethically produced solar panels from South Korea or Singapore, which are also more steeply priced.

In the meantime, however, members of the community solar movement continue to hope their endeavors will pay off and inspire others to join them. Otero spoke passionately of reducing dependency on philanthropic giving and empowering communities with the resilience to unlock social and environmental outcomes. In the near future, he wants to target large energy consumers, install solar panels on their roofs, engage them in long-term power purchasing agreements, and sell any excess energy to corporations. The challenges, however, will persist. “The real issue, which is something that still haunts us today, is an acceptance of change,” Otero said. “When you’re on to these [community projects], you have to build trust and to deliver. These take time.”

Update, April 14, 2021: This piece has been updated to reflect Isobel Annan’s professional affiliations.

Amandas Ong is a freelance journalist and has written for Bloomberg, the GuardianAl Jazeera, and others.