The community energy movement, which has been gathering pace over the past few years, is taking another big step forward this summer. To the north east of Oxford, work is shortly due to commence on what will be the UK’s largest community-owned solar park, Ray Valley Solar.
Ray Valley Solar will be a subsidy-free, community-owned solar park near Arncott in Oxfordshire. The project aims to generate enough electricity to power over 6,000 homes annually through its ground-mounted panels and will have a total installed capacity of 19.2 megawatts (MWp).
The park, which is expected to begin generating in autumn 2021, is owned by Low Carbon Hub, a social enterprise that aims to support and encourage local communities to take control of their energy. This new project will result in a five-fold increase in the amount of green electricity that Low Carbon Hub is able to generate annually, adding to its existing roof-mounted solar and hydropower projects across Oxfordshire.
Surpluses produced from Ray Valley Solar will be used to benefit the local community, with an aim to create over £10 million of community benefit funding over the project’s lifetime. The focus of this funding will be on supporting community initiatives that reduce energy demand across Oxfordshire and help tackle climate change – such as grants to support energy efficiency measures and working with schools to bring climate change onto the curriculum.
Pushing the community energy agenda
Ray Valley Solar is also a key trial site for Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire), a £40 million cross-organisational project that is conducting real-world trials to understand the role local energy can play in accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon energy system.
Partners working alongside Low Carbon Hub on the project range from the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University to energy supplier EDF and Nuvve, a pioneer in vehicle-to-grid electric vehicle charging technology. Together they aim to consider the electricity system of the future and how households, businesses and communities can realise its benefits.
“We want to make Oxfordshire an example for the world. To show how the right investment, used in the right way, can help meet our energy needs in a way that’s good for people, and good for the planet,” says Dr Barbara Hammond, CEO at Low Carbon Hub.
A key sector for sustainable finance
Triodos Bank UK has supported Low Carbon Hub with a loan to help construct and operate Ray Valley Solar. It will be used alongside funds that the organisation has raised from a number of other sources, including a community share offer, lending from Oxford City Council and grant funding from Project LEO.
Dr Hammond adds: “We were bowled over by the level of support for our share offer, which really demonstrates people’s enthusiasm for the project and support for a better energy system, one based on renewables that benefits communities.
“Ray Valley Solar Park is our first ground mount solar project, but it will be our 48th renewable energy project. We’re really pleased to be working with Triodos Bank to help make this project happen, an organisation with a strong track record and such closely aligned values to us.”
Talking about Triodos’s support for the sector, business banking relationship manager Chris Cullen comments: “As a bank that’s committed to addressing the climate emergency, as well as promoting social cohesion, we see projects like Ray Valley Solar as vitally important. Not only is this set to be the biggest community-owned solar park in the country, but the research and work that Low Carbon Hub and Project LEO are doing will have a wider impact across Oxfordshire and the UK.
“We need projects like this to demonstrate that community energy can play a key part in helping us achieve our net zero targets, all while keeping profits within that community to further benefit local people.”
Community energy: a hot topic
Over the past year, the community energy sector has of course been affected by the challenges of the Coronavirus crisis.
Many organisations stepped up to deliver for local people throughout the pandemic and community solar, hydro and wind schemes across the country were able to channel their surpluses into helping those most affected by Covid-19, providing tangible community support at a time of real need.
Further challenges have been faced by community energy providers as the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) government subsidy mechanism was wound down – making it much harder to develop renewable energy projects across the board.
With backing from leading environmentally focused organisations like Patagonia, community energy has once again come into the spotlight this spring as campaigners look to highlight the importance of the sector and the need for greater support. The outdoor clothing company has lent its support to Power for People, an organisation campaigning for the Local Electricity Bill, legislation that would remove blockers on electricity generators becoming local suppliers.
Having long-recognised the importance of community energy in our energy system transition, Triodos Bank has joined organisations such as the Eden Project, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB in backing the campaign.
Why we finance renewable energy
We believe that a fundamental transition is needed away from a carbon-based economy to a renewable one. By lending and investing in this sector we try to stimulate this transition, with our main focus on financing solar, wind and hydro energy.