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The way forward for the solar is small

British weather is synonymous with cloudy and cloudy skies. However, a calm expanding movement has worked hard to prove that there may be just enough sun to fuel a greener future. Spurred on by a dramatic 82 percent drop in the cost of solar panel installations in nine years, community-run power projects are now generating enough power to power thousands of homes and buildings. Profits tend to go into localized grassroots environmental initiatives or helping people struggling with fuel poverty.

Some of these community-owned efforts are aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of solar energy in the most economically deprived areas of the country. In South London, the non-profit Brixton Energy has been running one of the world's first cooperatively-owned inner-city projects for renewable energy since 2011. There is now a solar power plant on the roof that was funded by a community share offer totaling $ 73,000 in a social housing block. At the time the project was designed, 90 percent of the shareholders lived within a mile of the actual block.

An army of volunteers worked more than 2,500 hours developing and installing the project, reducing annual carbon emissions by an estimated 14 tons. Today the project raised $ 218,685 to purchase solar power that will power more than 100 homes on the property, and its success has been replicated in two other neighborhoods nearby. Not only do residents of the area get a discount on their energy bills: $ 82,482 of Brixton Energy's income goes to community initiatives such as debt management, fuel poverty counseling, and educational grants for young people who live where the projects are located. The idea is to fight youth unemployment through training programs in the field of renewable energies.

Agamemnon Otero, a co-founder of Repowering, an organization that helped found Brixton Energy, has experience working on more than 40 renewable energy projects in urban areas. “(In London) the sun is good from March to October and the majority of our returns come during these months. It's not Mordor and it's actually very viable, ”Otero said. “For annual domestic electricity consumption in the UK, you can probably get what you need with 4 kilowatts. It can absolutely be delivered. “He said the problems that repowering encountered were less logistical and more socio-political: transferring ownership to the local population was a more difficult task than expected, as a task force of legal experts was involved. Repowering has since developed five further social housing projects. Meanwhile, Otero became director of Energy Garden, a community-led urban redevelopment project. He and his team are working with transport companies to build 35 renewable energy gardens across London's S-Bahn network.

Another small project that has made a bigger impact beyond its humble beginnings is Solar SOAS, an on-campus initiative of 114 solar panels at SOAS University of London that's been running since 2016. “As far as we know, we were the first to start a community energy project at a university,” said Isobel Annan, co-director of UniSolar, the non-profit company established to operate Solar SOAS. She was a founding member of a core group of 10 volunteers involved in the initial installation, which was crowdfunded by staff, students and management. However, the team has downsized because of one of the main benefits of solar power: once the panels are in place, little maintenance is required. Annan and her teammates have graduated and now work as a lawyer specializing in energy and natural resources. Solar SOAS continues to supply the university, where around 5,000 students are enrolled, with electricity. Some of the electricity generated is also sold to the national electricity grid, and the money received is 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 met through Solar SOAS returned to Greece to start another community energy movement. Another friend who heard about Solar SOAS decided to start an analog project at Australia National University. In their eyes, such a greener economy will take shape: "It's just too scary to sit back and wait for the government to do something. In fact, you can cut carbon emissions significantly by staying with a few people in your home." Church work together and do something for yourself. And that's a really positive idea, "she said.

For those who live outside of London there is an opportunity to work even more ambitiously. Westmill Solar Cooperative, located on the Oxford and Wiltshire border, consists of more than 20,000 solar panels spread over 30 acres of land. The founders believe it is the world's largest cooperatively operated solar farm and is estimated to be owned by an estimated 1,500 members. Enough electricity is currently being generated to supply almost 2,000 households.

Tom Parkinson, chairman of the Westmill Solar Cooperative, said 2020 was an excellent year for solar energy due to the record amount of sunshine the UK has received. "The wonderful thing about all of this is … normal people, me or you, can own a power plant, and that's an important message in itself," said Parkinson. "The money (that we earn) stays in the community, which is good." Around $ 59,000 was returned to local organizations last year. Beneficiaries included a community cycling group, a bus service that offers rural transport to reduce car journeys, a school program that helps children understand the importance of improving climate change, and several others.

Representing the interests of all these projects is Community Energy England (CEE), an umbrella organization whose membership has grown to more than 300 municipal energy organizations in just seven years. CEE reported that municipal solar energy projects grew nearly 80 percent from 2016 to 2018 despite severe investment cuts, including cuts in government subsidies for localized power generation. It is also said that municipal electricity generation from solar energy projects across the UK has reached 155.4 megawatts – enough to power approximately 29,000 households. While wind and hydropower projects also help to minimize dependency on fossil fuels, they require significantly more workers than the solar alternative, said a representative from CEE. "Very little can go wrong provided (the solar panels) are properly installed," he said. "There are no mechanical complexities."

Stakeholders active in the sector hope that this progress will encourage more people to help the UK achieve its carbon neutral goal by 2050. There is promising news in this regard: As of March, the country's greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be 51 percent below 1990 levels. The UK is also the first G7 country to commit to such a high level of CO2 emissions reduce. However, CEE believes that more needs to be done – urgently. In a response to a government white paper on green energy, CEE complains that policy changes over the past five years have "hampered a passionate and dynamic sector that has more than doubled in size each year between 2014 and 2017," and that hundreds of community energy groups struggled to make projects financially viable.

CEE has called for the reinstatement of the Urban Community Energy Fund of $ 13.7 million, which was closed in 2016 but had previously offered grants of up to $ 27,000 to help communities set up their own renewable energy projects . She has also called on the government to reverse an increase in excise taxes levied on energy-saving measures such as solar panels and batteries. With the recent news that the global energy supply chain in Xinjiang, China is heavily reliant on slave labor, it is even more important for the government to step in, particularly to ease the financial burden on those who choose more ethically generated solar power want panels from South Korea or Singapore, which are also more expensive.

In the meantime, however, members of the solar community continue to hope that their efforts will pay off and inspire others to join them. Otero spoke passionately about reducing reliance on philanthropic donations and empowering communities with resilience to achieve social and environmental outcomes. In the near future, he would like to target large energy consumers, install solar panels on their roofs, include them in long-term power purchase agreements and sell excess energy to companies. However, the challenges will remain. "The real problem that concerns us to this day is the acceptance of change," said Otero. "When you take part in these (community projects) you have to build and deliver trust. They take time."

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