It has been a tumulous year for community solar. The feed-in tariff (FiT) closed on 31 March 2019, a decision that put community solar at risk of "falling off a cliff", according to Community Energy England's chief executive Emma Bridge.
In the year since, a number of community solar projects have come to fruition, including the Riding Sunbeams project to power a railway with community-owned solar and the first subsidy-free community solar farm.
Solar Power Portal caught up with Emma Bridge to talk about how the market has changed, the delays projects are facing due to COVID-19 (coronavirus) and whether subsidy-free is a reality for community solar.
It’s been a year since the end of the FiT, what does the market look like for community solar now?
It’s quite a mixed market. There's some really exciting projects coming through and there's a lot more partnership projects happening.
There's a real recognition now from private and public partners of the added value that community energy can bring, which is making some really exciting cutting-edge projects happen. But then there are other difficulties in terms of some of the smaller projects looking at how they can change their business models to make sure that they still are having that community value, particularly at a local level. For us - and the rest of the energy sector - it's not just about the FiT. It's things that happened with the Targeted Charging Review (TCR) and all the broader changes and the extra complexity that's coming through.
As community energy, we're expected to operate in a very market driven complex system, but still bring that additional value and social impact through as part of the projects, which means that we're always treading that tightrope to make sure that the margins are there. Even though we're not-for-profits, we still need to have that surplus to help build that community resilience and the community impacts in the projects that we're delivering. And of course, for us, because we could pre-register for FiTs, there's quite a few projects that have still got towards the end of this month to deliver and so a lot of our members really have their heads down, just making sure that they're delivering good projects right up until till the end of this month.
Has COVID-19 had any impact on those projects?
Coronavirus has already been impacting some of those projects. There's quite a few projects that are experiencing delays because of installations being delayed as workers are either isolating or ill, even to the point that for one project there's two key holders to the site; one’s got stuck over in Spain and the other one’s over eighty so they’re self-isolating so they can’t get onto the site.
We’re trying to talk to Ofgem and BEIS at the moment and are really pushing for some flexibility to come in. Just a little bit of flexibility on delivering those project so they can still get FiTs. A lot of these projects have been working on this for over a year and its a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and for something that no one could have imagined like coronavirus to really put the nail in the projects right at the last minute will be just so disappointing.
So far, we're being told by Ofgem that it’s legislation so there's not much they can do about it, but they are very sympathetic, so we’re really pushing BEIS now to implement some sort of policy change just to give us that little bit of wiggle room.
You mentioned the TCR earlier; how much of an impact does that have on community solar?
I think it's a future issue. I think it's something that is going to have a big impact on the sector, it's just that there are these more immediate issues to be dealing with. And I think the fact it's such a complex issue that the whole sector is grappling with and there are all the broader unintended consequences and the different changes happening, it's been quite difficult just to see how broad those impacts will be. But yeah, we're definitely worried about the future impact of the charging review.
The first subsidy free community solar project was recently connected to the grid. Do you see subsidy free becoming a reality for community solar?
Yes, but not yet. . . A lot of members are working very hard to go towards subsidies. You know, we are businesses or social enterprises, just because we're not making profit doesn't mean that we want to be reliant on subsidies. But I think at the moment, there'll be few and far between in the short term, just because of the broader issues that are being grappled with. So just the kind of support Power to Change is providing with Yealm has just been invaluable. And of course, they've got their wider portfolio and the wider support that they're going to be bringing in to try and help that grow across the country.
What needs to be done to enable subsidy free community solar, or is it simply a matter of time?
I think it's things that are very difficult at the moment. I think it's a longer term, more coherent policy. It's a lot of things that other sectors are asking for as well. We've been waiting to find out what's in the energy white paper; we would like to see some sort of commitment towards community energy as part of that. Part of our key lobbying at the moment is around tax relief, so the social investment tax needs to be brought back for community energy so that people who are investing in projects that are going to have that local value are rewarded for that.
There's lots of things that we can do to make it happen so it's not just time, but there is no silver bullet; it's a mixture of different mechanisms. I think on the plus side, it amazes me the ongoing resilience and passion and motivation in the sector. So whatever happens, we're going to continue doing fantastic projects. It's just it's almost like there's a break on, that if we had one of those small levels of support the growth it could be so much quicker and have so much more of an impact and also help the broader private and public sector.