Swindon residents could fund solar farm alongside local council

Residents in Swindon could be given the opportunity to co-invest in a new solar farm with their local council in a first for community energy projects.

The 5MW Swindon Community Solar Farm would allow local people to invest in council solar bonds for a minimum stake of £5. Subject to final approval by the cabinet, which will consider the proposals on 10 February, the solar farm will be on council-owned land at Common Farm near Wroughton, where it would be managed by a community interest company wholly owned by Swindon Borough Council.

The farm would cost £4.8 million to construct, with £3 million coming from the council’s investment. The remaining £1.8 million would be sought from community investors, who would stand to make a 6% rate of return over 20 years.  Local residents would also benefit from the 65% of the profits being used to fund local community initiatives.

The remaining funds would go to investors and the council, providing a new source of income at a time when local authority budgets are being squeezed.

Dale Heenan, Swindon Borough Council cabinet member for transport and sustainability, said: “Swindon Borough Council’s approach to solar farms means that local residents can invest as little as £5 or more than £5,000. Whether they are providing for a child’s future, their own retirement, or just for a rainy day, our approach is democratic finance in action.

“This could be the model all councils use in the future for community investment projects.”

The bonds would be provided in partnership with Abundance Investment, which has successfully raised £15m for 16 different projects in the past three years.

Bruce Davis, managing director of Abundance, said: “We’re really pleased to be working with Swindon Borough Council to help them achieve this genuinely innovative and exciting community investment opportunity. We expect this to be a real game-changer and provide a new model for cash-strapped local authorities to fund community projects. It’s a win for the council, a win for the community and a win for the environment.”

The project has already received planning consent through the council’s use of local development orders which identify areas where these projects can be achieved. This speeds up the planning process while allowing for a full public consultation to take place.

If approved, construction is expected to begin in the spring and will help Swindon in its aim to install 200MW of renewable capacity by 2020, enough to meet the equivalent energy requirements of every home in the Borough. A total of 140MW has already been built or is being planned, with the Swindon Community Solar Farm to be the first community funded scheme.

The council is also planning a second development on the nearby Chapel Farm but it is unclear if this will also be community funded. According to a spokesperson for Swindon Borough Council: “Chapel Farm is yet to be decided but I think we’ll see how this one goes first as we need to taste-test the appetite of the local people to invest in this.”