The Big Lemon bus

The Big Lemon: building the UK’s first solar-powered bus network

May 2, 2018 - 5min read

The Big Lemon bus and coach company are doing something that’s never been done before: they’re putting together the UK’s first fleet of entirely electric, solar-powered buses - but this is far from the only thing about their operation that makes them unique.

Since launching in 2007, The Big Lemon has built up a fleet of 22 eco-friendly buses - two of which are currently electric, the rest running on low-carbon-footprint biodiesel - which service six bus routes across Brighton and Hove. They also run a coach service for hire, provide transportation to events further afield (like Glastonbury music festival), and have introduced a ‘Happy Bus’ initiative so Brighton locals can nominate individuals or groups for free, fun-packed day trips.

But what’s even more impressive is that The Big Lemon has done all this as a community interest company, raising a significant proportion of its capital by inviting the very people who use the service to invest in it.

When we spoke to The Big Lemon’s development manager Kelly Dibbert, the company was in the middle of a major investment campaign to buy three new electric buses, and retrofit one of their diesel buses to electric.

“We’ve already got £500,000 from the Department for Transport Low Emission Bus Scheme,” says Kelly, “now we’re raising the other £405,000 ourselves. All our profits go back into the business so we don’t have a massive reserve of money, and that’s why we’re raising the funds through a bond issue.”

Essentially, anyone can become a part owner of The Big Lemon, for a few years at least. “Individuals can buy either a three-year or a five-year bond,” says Kelly, “each one costing £100 and offering an annual return on investment of four and five percent respectively. We’d already raised £300,000 a few weeks ago, and if we keep going at that rate, then… we’re doing very well.”

Two days later - halfway through the six week campaign - The Big Lemon announced they had already hit their £405,000 target, and extended their bond issue with the aim of raising a further £135,000 to allow them to buy another diesel bus to convert to electric, meaning the entire fleet would remain electric even when one of the vehicles is in maintenance.

Tom Druitt showing off the solar panels on the Big Lemon depot roof

Placing the local community at the heart of The Big Lemon’s objectives - as investors, employees and beneficiaries - is a strategy that has paid off time and again for the company, its customers and the environment.

“When our first bus service started in 2007,” says Kelly, “we would go round to all the local restaurants, collecting their used cooking oil so we could recycle it by converting it into biodiesel ourselves to use in our buses.

“A big part of what we’re about is reusing and recycling. So, to launch the first ever solar powered electric bus last year, we took two diesel buses and converted them into electric vehicles, then debuted the first one in April 2017. We raised the money for that through bond issues, too.”

And in order for those electric buses to be truly zero emissions, they would need to be run on renewable energy, rather than charging up from the grid. “We installed a 21kW solar array on the roof of our bus depot,” says Kelly, “and half of the money for that was won from the Marks & Spencer Community Energy Fund. The other half we raised ourselves through crowdfunding.”

Solar panels installed at The Big Lemon depot

Installed in partnership with the Brighton Energy Cooperative, the array produces enough electricity to power the two existing electric buses, along with the depot and its offices. The Big Lemon doesn’t just have its eye on the big picture, though; it’s equally committed to creating the biggest possible environmental impact on a smaller scale, too.

Their offices are decked out with “pre-loved waste furniture”; all of their promotional material is printed on 100% recycled paper; all of the rubbish on the buses is sorted and collected by the Brighton Paper Round, and the depot even has its own compost heap. There isn’t a single aspect of The Big Lemon’s day-to-day running that hasn’t been lovingly geared towards sustainability, and it serves as a shining example of the environmental impact a business can have - and how this has real-world, practical applications.

“Our electric buses can do around 100 miles on a single charge from our solar panels” says Kelly. “We did a solar bus challenge a couple of weeks ago to launch the solar bus bonds, We took our first electric bus - Om Shanti - in service, picking up real passengers to see if we could do it and how much charge we used. We did all six bus routes in one trip and had 35% battery left when we got back to the depot - and that was with us out from 7:30 in the morning to around 3:30 in the afternoon.”

“People love them because they’re quiet,” says Kelly. “The drivers love driving them because they’re quiet and smooth, and not rattling around like a diesel bus. And noise pollution is the next worst thing that impacts people’s health after air pollution, so if you’ve got nice quiet buses driving around it really does make a big difference to people’s health.”

As the first company in the UK to undertake a project like this, The Big Lemon is rolling into uncharted territory - but at the same time paving the way for others to do the same, sharing information about the obstacles they’ve faced (in retrofitting their diesel buses, for example) in the hope that others can follow suit while benefiting from The Big Lemon’s experience.

“Our plan is to turn our entire fleet electric, not just the bus services,” says Kelly. But the question remains: “If a small, community interest company can turn six bus services electric, then why aren’t the big corporates doing it? If we can do it, other companies can do it too.”

We hope the answer is simply that The Big Lemon are ahead of the curve, and that their success will serve as a blueprint for other businesses seeking to develop sustainable, zero emissions transport services.

This isn’t just about transport, though: The Big Lemon’s business model demonstrates just how significant the broader environmental impact can be when individuals, companies and communities combine forces to achieve a common goal.

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