May 24, 2018 - 5min read
Just outside of Stratford-Upon-Avon, there are three solar farms made up of 60,000 solar panels, with a total generating capacity of 14.7 MW, producing enough renewable electricity to power 4,500 typical UK homes. What makes these solar farms unusual is that they are owned by the public - and their profits are invested directly back into the local community.
Heart of England Community Energy (HECE) was set up in 2017, when they acquired three operational solar farms in the West Midlands. “We’re now the biggest community energy company in the country,” says Michael Bullock - one of the company’s nine directors - proudly.
We spoke to Michael at the tail end of an unseasonably warm April/May which, of course, is great news for HECE. “We do love it when the sun shines,” says Michael, “and the last few weeks have been pretty good to us! We measure the generation of our solar panels constantly, though, and our monthly reports are showing that our performance has been slightly ahead of expectations ever since we launched. It’s working really well.”
And when HECE is generating solar energy slightly ahead of expectations, that’s good news for everyone - for the company’s shareholders, its bond-holders, for the local community and for the environment as a whole. Here’s how it works.
HECE was formed when a group of local residents (now the directors) came together to form a Community Benefit Society. Shareholders invested in the company through crowdfunding platform Mongoose Crowd - which has helped develop a number of community energy initiatives across the UK - with the money raised going towards repaying a £6.2m loan from the Social and Sustainable Capital (SASC) fund which HECE used to buy its three 5 MW sites spread across 75 acres of Drayton Manor Farm.
“We sell the power that’s generated into the grid,” says Michael, “so that’s 4500 homes that we’re powering - nominally, anyway - through renewable energy, rather than them getting gas-fired, carbon fuel-based electricity. And because it’s renewable electricity we’re generating and putting into the grid, we get a payment from the government in addition to the wholesale rate for the electricity.”
This is how the shareholders get their return on investment, as well as how money is raised for local community projects. “The amount we pay to shareholders is a target and it’s capped,” says Michael. “If we get above that it’s more money for the community, but we’ve made a commitment to try and put at least £30,000 of revenue a year towards community projects - we’re aiming to donate £2.7m to good causes over the course of the project’s life time.”
The main area in which HECE aims to have a positive impact on the local community is, unsurprisingly, energy-focused. “Our initial focus is specifically around helping people in energy poverty,” says Michael. “We’re looking at working with partners that are already active in identifying elderly people or vulnerable families, and providing them with information on what measures are available to them to reduce their energy bills and conserve energy, and help them in accessing those measures.” Further afield - and on top of the £30,000 community fund - HECE has also made provisions for a £2,500 annual grant to Solar Aid, which supplies solar lights to communities in low-income countries.
At the same time, HECE is also committed to having a more direct environmental impact in preserving and fostering biodiversity across the 45 acres of land occupied by its solar panels. “There are areas of our site that can be looked at for creating long-term habitats for wildlife,” says Michael, “so we’ve been working with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s ‘A Living Landscape’ initiative, looking at reducing nitrates and the like in the soil to encourage the growth of native wildflowers. That in turn encourages bees, butterflies and small mammals such as voles. We’re already having sightings of hare and deer!”
Michael speaks with genuine passion about HECE’s solar farms and its community initiatives, which is just as well: “The directors are all committed enthusiasts who don’t get paid for this,” says Michael. “We’re just keen to see this kind of initiative happen.” And if you look more closely at Michael’s professional and personal life, you’ll see that the community solar farm is just one component of his all-encompassing commitment to renewable energy.
Michael’s day job focuses on risk management and the insurance of renewable energy technologies across the world. The idea of risk is something that comes up repeatedly while talking to him, and his expertise lies in being able to ascertain that a base level of renewable energy will be produced at a low enough risk that he can all but guarantee HECE is a safe bet for investors - and the environment.
His work has given him valuable insight into upcoming technologies, and he’s excited about a variety of new developments such as battery storage, bio-pellets and industrial-scale recycling of cattle slurry into biomass. Living on an island, though, there’s one technology that has especially piqued his interest.
“The UK has the opportunity to become a world leader in the marine energy sector,” says Michael. “Tidal is unlike other renewables in that it’s predictable - you know when the tides are going to flow so you know how much electricity you’re going to produce. There’s a huge opportunity for exports and jobs in this area.”
And, as someone who knows what’s what when it comes to the future of renewable energy and the relative merits of different technologies, it should come as no surprise that Michael is a member of Tonik Energy.
“Not only is Tonik at the more competitively priced end of energy suppliers, but its green energy tariffs are something that appealed very much to me,” says Michael. “I’ve got solar panels on my roof which have been generating very satisfactorily for 5-6 years years now so I’m totally sold on the capabilities of the technology - it’s a no-brainer. I’m certainly interested in getting battery storage installed too… my wife and I are looking at replacing our diesel car with an electric, and having a battery alongside EV charging capabilities and our solar panels is definitely somewhere we’d like to be in the next year or two.”
Solar panels, whether they’re on your roof or part of a much larger system in a field, will always have the power to benefit their owners as well as the environment as a whole. The beauty of Heart of England Community Energy’s strategy lies in having found ways to transform renewable energy into unexpected benefits for the local area as well.
HECE are currently offering 4-year bonds with a target return of 5% (capital at risk, returns not guaranteed) via Mongoose Crowd, with the aim of raising a further £1m to go towards paying back the SASC loan, thereby freeing up more money to go towards community projects. Find out more here.