Shining a light on community energy

Renewable energy company Joju Solar recently won the ‘best use of solar in a community energy project’ at the Solar Power Portal Awards.
The award was for the firm’s work of the summer of 2016, when it installed a total of 2.5MW of community solar across 46 sites during a 10-week period, including several schools.
Since being founded in 2006, it’s been responsible for installing 5% of all community renewables in the UK.
Environment Journal spoke to the company’s co-founder, Dr Chris Jardine, about the company’s successes to date and the future of community energy.

Firstly, can you tell us about how and why Joju Solar was set up?

Joju Solar was founded in 2006 by Joe Michaels and myself. Joe was the entrepreneur, who saw the potential for renewable energy and wanted to set up a business in this space, but wasn’t an expert in the technology. At the time I was running the solar energy research at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute and had thought about setting up an installation company, but lacked the cojones it go it alone. We were introduced by family friends, and recognising the synergies in skills, Joju was founded!

What did it mean to win the community award at the Solar Power Portal Awards?

It was highly rewarding to win the Community Energy Award at the Solar Power Portal Awards. It’s a sector we have been passionate about since the very beginning; we installed the very first community-share-funded solar PV scheme in the UK in 2008, which really gave rise to the whole movement.

Since then, we’ve installed some of the largest and highest profile community solar schemes in the country. That totals about 5% of all community renewables in the UK, including wind and hydro. So, community energy is major part of what we do, and is central to our ethics as a company. It’s great to be recognised in this way.

The community energy sector has seen some big changes recently. Are you optimistic about its future?

Yes, it’s been tough times in the community energy sector, and the PV industry as a whole since the feed-in-tariff cuts in January 2016. That said, the future for community energy is still bright – the sector attracts a lot of incredibly dedicated and passionate people with all the skills needed to develop new models and projects going forward. The idea that energy should be locally owned and operated for the benefit of communities is an idea that isn’t going to go away, irrespective of governments favouring one technology over another. It’s bigger than that.

Will the advent of cheaper and more efficient battery storage give the rollout of solar energy a second life?

We’re beginning to see this, but I’m not sure it’s all about batteries. After the feed-in-tariff cuts of 2016, we’re now seeing the market coming back, as people get excited by the potential of batteries and electric vehicles (EVs).

The latter is the most interesting. I think we expected people with solar roofs to be among the first to purchase EVs. What we didn’t expect is that people who have purchased EVs now want to run their vehicles off their own free, green electricity. This is now a major driver for PV sales. There’s a growing narrative now that the home of the future will have PV, battery storage and electric vehicles, and we’re finding that people with one of these technologies now want the other two.

Joju Solar has installed a lot of panels on schools and community buildings. Would you like to see more schools and buildings generate their own power?

Of course! The benefits of solar PV for schools is very clear; it reduces bills freeing up budget for education, and I think everyone would acknowledge that it’s good to demonstrate renewable technologies and sustainable lifestyles to schoolchildren. We do already see a lot of solar arrays on schools, but there’s still a long way to go.

What can be done to encourage more schools to take up solar panels?

Well, schools are strapped for cash at present as we all know, and there’s the big switch from council control to academies. What we can do is make it easier for them to do this, and this is where the community energy angle comes in again. Our work with the Schools Energy Coop nationwide, the Low Carbon Hub in Oxfordshire, and 10:10’s brilliant solar schools programme, has raised the finance for the solar PV systems from local share offers in the community. The school gets the electricity from the PV system at a lower price than they purchase from the grid, so they save money. The community investors get a 5% per year return on their investment, which is better than they could get in a bank. And there’s still a surplus left over that can go and fund other beneficial projects in the local area. So it’s a win, win, win!

Do you think having solar panels on schools helps children to think and learn about renewable energy?

Yes. Obviously, seeing the generating technology up close is going to help children learn about renewable energy. It can also help understanding across a wide range of subjects: solar data can be used to teach statistics in maths lessons, energy flows and quantum mechanics in physics, solar resource and development issues in geography, economics, politics and citizenship. Energy cuts across so many aspects of our lives its relevant to almost any lesson.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about renewable energy and what can be done to overcome them?

I think the biggest misconception about renewable energy is its cost, which isn’t really true anymore. If you look at the cost of a PV system on a school or commercial property, and compare to what it generates, you get electricity at about 4-5p/kWh. Most sites will be paying double this to get dirty electricity form the grid! If I offered to halve the price you paid for electricity you’d bite my hand off. So why aren’t people rushing to buy solar? The issue is that when you buy a PV system, you are essentially buying 25 years’ worth of electricity in one go – all the cost is up front, and the benefit comes over a long time. So, although it’s the cheapest way of providing electricity to a building, there’s a barrier of needing capital to access this. The obvious route through is by community finance; they deal with the up-front cost and you can start benefitting from lower bills from day one.

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Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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