Cities Team Researcher
Local renewable energy installation will form a vital part of the rapid transition away from fossil fuels needed to meet the UK’s emissions targets.
Barnsley is home to the UK’s largest community energy project. This has delivered solar energy to hundreds of vulnerable households across the town as well as reducing their energy bills. Before the project, 9,000 households in the council area suffered from fuel poverty – meaning that they couldn’t afford to keep their homes warm enough within their incomes.
Now hundreds of homes have been equipped with solar panels, batteries, and smart monitors which allow owners to store electricity and monitor and manage their energy use. The Barnsley model builds the resilience of communities to events such as fuel bill rises – it is centred on the principle of community self-generation, self-storage and self-consumption.
The project is the outcome of a partnership between Barnsley Council and Energise Barnsley, a social enterprise set up by and with the council. Work began in 2014.
Energise Barnsley has created positive social, economic and environmental outcomes for people and communities. Two groups of local people have benefited from the scheme: tenants who have received solar installations on their homes, and others who have benefited from a community fund created through the Barnsley Solar Bond.
Cutting emissions and fuel bills
By spring 2021, the original 321 home installations had produced 5,513MWhs of energy, saving a collective £278,844 for tenants on electricity bills and 2,922 tonnes in reduced CO2 emissions. Over the project lifetime, a massive 18,000 tonnes of emissions savings are predicted.
Supporting community projects
The Barnsley Solar Bond community fund has helped run healthy cooking courses for those on a low income, paid the salary of a community farm manager, supported the local Age UK centre, covered replacement playground equipment, and contributed towards neighbourhood revitalisation efforts such as flowerbed planting.
In 2021, Energise Barnsley awarded a £20,000 contract to the Community First Credit Union, who will work to provide debt support, loan services and budgeting advice in order to help local people manage their critical rent, council tax and utility bills. Overall, an estimated £400,000 of surplus income generated via the solar Feed-in Tariff will be put back into communities over the project’s lifetime.
Supporting local jobs
As Energise Barnsley has expanded its projects and aspirations for local people over the years, employment opportunities have also opened up. The new project announced in July 2021 will train local contractors to install solar PV systems and create six new long-term jobs.
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A clear vision and aims
Barnsley was built on coal, but renewables offer new promise for Barnsley to become a leader in the low-carbon energy sector giving the council a positive vision to get behind. This work aligned with Barnsley Council’s 2015-2025 Energy Strategy, which had six core aims:
Partnership was a crucial ingredient in the scheme. Collaborating with Energise Barnsley has ensured that the council was able to fulfil all six of its objectives. The council and Energise Barnsley joined with British Gas Solar, Northern Powergrid, Moixa (battery installers), Berneslai Homes (the council’s social housing company) and Generation Community Ventures (community developer and asset manager). The council was able to gain support from parts of the community it had struggled to reach before, and to deliver tangible benefits to vulnerable residents.
The total cost of the project was £2m. This was funded by a £1.2m loan from ethical lender Charity Bank and an £800k retail bond, mentioned above. The Barnsley Solar Bond raised the £800k target in under three months in 2016, with a minimum investment of £100. Bond Investors – of which 60% are local – receive interest of 5% per annum. The bond allowed ordinary people to invest in the project, and enjoy returns based on the sale of surplus energy to National Grid.
Energise Barnsley’s main income generator is the Feed-in Tariff, a UK government mechanism that pays for surplus renewable energy produced at home and exported to the National Grid (tariff payments typically continue for 20 years) which is no longer available. In Barnsley, most of this income was used to make interest payments to Barnsley Solar Bond investors, with the rest retained for the community fund.
This fund has financed street cleaning, LED street lighting and many other services and improvements. Feeding money back into communities has hugely increased the number of local people who have been served by what began as a simple solar partnership between the council and Energise Barnsley.
In 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced Energise Barnsley would be one of 13 groups to receive a share of £8.57m funding. This award meant Energise Barnsley could fit a further 49 homes with smart batteries for air source heat pumps
Costs of solar are falling
The business case for Barnsley was challenging due to the expense of renewables when the scheme was launched. The cost of solar batteries, for instance, was £6,250 per unit, but costs have since fallen dramatically. The economics for similar projects are vastly improved now as solar technology cheapens and retail tariffs rise.
A related key lesson is that the combination of solar PV panels with batteries provides best value for residents, as opposed to either panels or batteries alone.
Navigating the new Smart Energy Guarantee scheme
Councils can no longer take advantage of the Feed-in Tariff scheme, which closed to new applications in March 2019. Energise Barnsley built itself around the tariff as the main income generator. This has been replaced by the new Smart Energy Guarantee (SEG), so a route to export energy to the market still exists. Yet Smart Energy Guarantee subsidies can fluctuate and are typically lower than the Feed-in Tariff.
The lack of a stable guaranteed subsidy makes it harder to replicate the scheme. For new projects to be commercially viable, other avenues must be found. Energise Barnsley is exploring options that rely on demand side response, peer-to-peer trading, and the government’s ongoing Renewable Heat Incentive. Community Energy England, Green Alliance and new online forum PowerPaired are all also looking into alternative models for local authorities.
Community engagement vital
Communities must be helped to fully understand projects and the benefits they will deliver. Communication should be consistent and clear, making considerations for tenants and homeowners of all ages and abilities.
To find out more about Energise Barnsley, contact Andy Heald – firstname.lastname@example.org
Energise Barnsley has already been the subject of detailed case studies. For more detail, see Energy Hub’s previous case study here.
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