Brighton Energy Co-op (BEC), the renewable energy company formed with the vision of enabling community-owned solar power in Brighton, has revealed its plans for the region in the face of the feed-in tariff review.

By utilising the UK’s FiT, BEC’s founder Will Cotterell (pictured) and fellow Directors Danni Craker and Damian Tow have been working for the past seven months to set up a ‘Community Benefit Society.’ In order to achieve this it was important that they each worked to understand how other community-owned renewable energy projects have succeeded as well as raising early-stage investment. The next job was to identify at least six suitable sites for installation of solar panels. Now that these stages are complete, the team’s next and biggest objective is to be the first community solar project to raise £1M in spring 2011, in order to install around 300kW of photovoltaic panels on the roofs of local buildings.

But why take on this daunting challenge?

The main motive behind this company is to make the opportunity to invest in low carbon energy generation more democratic. At present a minimum of around £10,000 is needed to invest in solar panels for the average three bedroom semi-detached house, and if you live in flats in central Brighton or Hove – as do BEC’s three Directors – it can be difficult to get agreement from the building owner or to gain planning permission for the installation of the solar panels. BEC’s vision is therefore comprised of enabling local people to invest smaller sums of money into a large ‘pot’ that will provide them some financial return, but also, perhaps more importantly, an environmental and social return from working together to generate low carbon energy in Brighton.

Raising £1M is certainly a daunting prospect, but the Directors of BEC are receiving expert advice from across the UK on how to go about this, and more importantly they believe that the City by the Sea with the country’s first Green MP is the perfect place to start the ‘people power’ revolution.

However, unfortunately, BEC’s plans are currently overshadowed by the fast-track review of what DECC terms ‘large-scale’ (over 50kW) solar installations, which was announced on 7th Feb. From BEC’s extensive financial modelling by Danni Craker, who is a Chartered Accountant, a portfolio of installations of greater than 300kWs is needed for a community project to run as a viable business and provide a return to investors. There are of course up-front start-up costs to consider and ongoing operational costs for 25 years which need to be provided for out of the FiT income. The key point that seems to be missing from many assessments of the viability of community renewables is that the FiT income stream has to finance a community-owned business, not just a discrete project that is staffed by expert, but unpaid, volunteers. The only way to achieve this is by the economies of scale created by building a small PV portfolio, however this important detail seems to be so far overlooked in DECC’s assessment of how communities can generate their own electricity.

Brighton Energy Co-op (BEC) was created as a result of the founder, Will Cottrell, attending the failed Copenhagen Climate Change negotiations at the end of 2009. Coming away feeling the need to ‘do something about it’ he visited communities in Denmark that had their own wind farms and found out that 20% of Danish renewable energy is community-owned. This led to the seed of an idea which was nourished by the Government’s planned launch of the feed-in tariff (FiT) in 2010 and blossomed when he held a public meeting in June 2010. The FiT is essentially a mechanism to subsidise the roll-out of renewable energy infrastructure which have proved highly successful in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries over the last few years. Without this subsidy, the plans in Brighton would face serious problems.