Yealm Community Energy has two solar farms, Newton Downs and Creacombe. The latter was lauded as the first subsidy-free community solar project, and was connected to the grid in February 2020.
The farm has a capacity of 7.3MW, and around half of this is unsubsidised.
Solar Power Portal spoke to Andrew Moore, one of the directors of Creacombe, to talk subsidy-free community solar, the possibility of battery storage and just how Creacombe came to be.
How did the purchase of Creacombe and Newton Downs come about?
The idea was, if possible, Yealm Community Energy would end up purchasing these two solar farms, but then there was the question of who does what, when and how. It was looking a bit difficult until CORE came along, by which time Newton Downs had been built by Good Energy. Creacombe was still on the cards and that's where it was going to sit, just on the cards, because by then everybody thought the subsidies had run out. But [it was] noticed that there was 4.4 megawatts of unclaimed subsidies still on the books that would be available if the solar farm was up and commissioned by the end of 2019. And so together with CORE, Heaven and Earth were moved and it was commissioned on the 30th December 2019.
Bright Renewables are to manage the Creacombe site. How did they become part of the project?
Clearly, one wants somebody to come along and look after your solar farm and CORE decided that they would like to look at the market to see who would be able to come along and offer the service that was required for the price that they thought was reasonable.
Their logic at that point was that there wasn't quite anything at that level, and it didn't feel right. . .They weren't convinced that there was anybody out there to do it, but they felt that given that they were creating six, seven or eight small organisations, all of which required a similar service, that they should be able to do better. And in the end, they said that the best way we could do this was by creating another community owned organisation. This organisation would be through the customers of Yealm Community Energy and all the others, so we own part of it, and they put together what I think is a very strong team.
I think that it has a great deal of potential for the future, especially when you start thinking about what's next. You know, we've talked about new solar projects but one of the other things we might want to be talking about is batteries or going down the road of virtual cables to particular customers, and they do seem to me to have their fingers on the pulse for all the various things that one might want to do in the future.
Will subsidy free community solar become more commonplace?
It all depends on the numbers. You know, it's roughly about a million pounds a megawatt. So, if you're going to have to raise £5 million, then what you have to have a situation in which the amount of money that you're paying - in terms of the financing of any debts that you have, however that is structured - is sufficient so that you can pay for the running of the solar farm and have a very small proportion over of the surplus which is going to go into the community pot.
In the end, it’s down to simple numbers. And we're fortunate at the moment in that we have very low interest rates and organisations are willing to lend at fairly low interest rates. Given the investment situation that we're in, we can get equity funding at reasonable interest rates, so it becomes doable. Once those numbers increase, if the cost of borrowing increases or the amount that's demanded by investors increases, then it becomes impossible very quickly.
We've had previous experience - not with CORE - in trying to put something together and we laboured long and hard over the numbers we were given, and it was risky.
Are there any barriers you’re running into for community solar as a whole?
No, in fact I would say it’s the other way around. We've got, not exactly plans coming out the woodwork, but we've now got people coming along to us. For example, there's a local school that is having some new classrooms built and they came along and asked if we could help. It’s being built solar panel ready, but they haven’t got the funds to put the solar panels on there. And the answer is, I don't know at the moment whether we can help or not because at the end of the day, I'm not a solar engineer, what we are are enablers and what we're hoping to do is see whether we can enable it.