Dorking group builds support for solar at a grass roots level

  • Generic rooftop

With small-scale solar taking a hit during the feed-in tariff saga of last year, the industry is going through a period of change as new practices are developed to help solar power reach grid parity.

While developments in storage are encouraging, it has been argued that the technology is still not cheap or sustainable enough to be picked up widely just yet. Until new alternatives like this can be distributed to homeowners and businesses alike, the sector will have to rely on innovative methods of marketing and deployment to keep the market ticking over.

One place where a new grass-roots solar movement is taking hold is Dorking, through the efforts of TD Solar Group. The initiative was started in April 2015 by Steven McDonald and a few other dedicated members with the purpose of promoting and facilitating the installations and take-up of solar energy.

The not-for-profit group is volunteer led and sees McDonald and his team knocking on doors and making the case for solar to local businesses. Resources are tight for the group’s six core members, who fit in their efforts around normal day jobs. However, with a growing list of supporters – now around 90 in the Dorking area – the team’s work has led to the first installation to result from its efforts being completed.

A 4kW system was installed on the roof of local business DIY Marquees after McDonald convinced company director Spencer King of the benefits of solar. As McDonald explains, this first project is an important first step for the group.

"That was really good for us because it demonstrated that we are a serious community group. A lot of community groups just meet once a month and that's it but we wanted to prove that we had some substance behind what we do to give us credibility,” he said.

The installation was carried out by local solar business Helios Energy, which has been trading since January 2015. For company director Will Clemson, the potential of the community group – and its figurehead – was clear.

“He’s very enthusiastic guy and they’re quite an active eco group within the area. He said he was going to approach commercial clients in the area to gauge their interest in solar. This sparked an interest for us because we wanted to be the ones installing it and getting involved,” he explained.

“They’re also an established name in the area so they are a good relationship to have. It gets us involved with the solar scene on a really local level; it’s all positive from our point of view.”

The project itself went off without a hitch according to Spencer King, who said: “It was an incredibly smooth process all in all. We’re flat out during the summer so we had to fit it in to a time scale in the winter but that was the only sort of pressure.”

Helios Energy was able to complete the project in time for it to benefit from the higher rate of feed-in tariff which closed on 14 January. Where this financial incentive served as an ideal tool in promoting solar as an investment, the recent change has pulled the industry back to its roots as an environmental endeavour.

As McDonald explains: “You've got to market it in a different way now. You're not going to be able to make that much money now apart from when you get to the point that you're actually getting your energy for free. This is not a cash cow; it just makes good common sense both environmentally, which is the thing that drives me the most, and the fact that whether subsidies are there or not, solar energy from the sky is free.

“It's something that you cannot push on to people too hard; this stuff is free. Of course there's an initial investment, but that could be picked up by the community or private investment.”

Community funding is where TD Solar Group is headed next, with the initiative on the look-out for larger roofs in the Dorking area suitable for a larger scale installation. Among the potential targets are local schools, which McDonald believes are suited perfectly to solar.

"Schools are absolutely brilliant for solar because it's an ethical thing to do and that teaches the children that we need to look after our planet. Plus the fact that they're using the electricity right there and then, like a factory would,” he explained.

While it may take time to build on its successes up to now, TD Solar Group has enough local support to ensure the movement keeps building momentum, not least thanks to one of its founding members.

Spencer King said: “I certainly hope it gets picked up locally. It certainly won’t be through lack of trying on Steve’s part, he’s very impressive going round and it’s a very positive thing. There’s no reason all the industrial properties couldn’t have this, it’s a win-win on all accounts really.”

The team is hoping to get a community project off the ground this year, using share options and other mechanisms to generate funds as well as attract private investment. McDonald says support in the community and local businesses is already there, so it’s likely the group will continue to be successful.

While the industry takes stock, success stories like these will no doubt draw attention, with this unique grass-roots solar movement offering a new alternative to pitching solar to the masses.

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