This is the story of how community energy group Yealm Community Energy bought a solar farm to benefit their local community as part of the Community Energy Together project. SPP has previously reported on this project here, while our sister site Current± has been running a series on community energy in the UK. In 2020, SPP interviewed Yealm Community Energy’s Andrew Moore.
This blog was written by Here Now Films.
We watched as Hornet, the 15 ft plastic rowing boat, was lifted from a trailer and placed into the cold choppy waters of Plymouth sound. This was the first race she’d been in. Yes, she’d been used all winter on the River Yealm, that was the reason she was bought in the first place, as a boat that the team could practice in no matter the weather. But this race, today, would be the first competitive race she’d ever been in. You may be wondering what a racing rowing boat has to do with buying a solar farm? Well, in the case of Yealm Community Energy (YCE), it’s everything.
The area around the River Yealm is a picture of idyllic Devon countryside. Green rolling hills lead down to wooded embankments at the water's edge. Towns and villages overlook the river connected only through tidal fords and small ferries. National Trust signs proudly denote areas of outstanding natural beauty and sleepy post offices act as meeting places for morning walks. It may surprise you then that right here, on the riverbank of the Yealm, is where one of the UK’s most forward thinking renewable energy projects is coming to life. Here, a small group of concerned citizens have come together to put 2 local solar farms into the ownership of the local community.
The immediate question is why bother? Surely people can just buy green energy straight from the grid? Well, the people of the Yealm are thinking bigger… much bigger. They want an energy source that guarantees everyone green energy at a set price, no profiteering energy companies, no spikes from hikes in oil price. Taking it one step further they wanted it to be owned by the community for the community. Every year the solar farm would invest a set amount of money into an open community fund to be awarded to environmental and social projects in the local area. The fund ensures that money spent on energy is retained in the local community. It’s a neat idea and makes you wonder why this isn’t the way things are done already. It becomes even more infuriating when you think about the amount of energy lost to grid inefficiencies – according to a study by greenpiece the UK power grid wastes 54% of all energy generated due to the long transmission distances. Local energy just makes sense.
Putting utopian dreams aside, most communities haven’t got nearly enough money to be able to pull off a stunt like this, the financial and knowledge hurdles are just too great. Enter Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE), a partnership between Big Society Capital, The National Lottery Power To Change program and Finance Earth. CORE was created with the sole purpose of putting local solar farms into the hands of local community energy groups across the UK. This 40 million pound fund was designed to fund between 6-8 solar acquisitions… YCE being the pioneer project. The idea is simple: CORE buys eligible solar farms and holds them in trust for local energy groups until they have the funds to purchase the farms themselves. On top of all of this CORE turns the financial and expertise issues on its head and helps with everything, the purchase, working out a financial model for moving the farm into the community hands and a general help in understanding the energy market. It’s an inspired idea.
Yealm’s been full steam ahead with this process ever since 2015. Since then they've survived 2 energy market crashes and a pandemic. Against all of this, the project stands firm and is looking towards a bright future. What’s most amazing is that they’ve continued, throughout everything, to pay £20,000 a year into the YCE community fund. This was one of their caveats right at the beginning. As soon as CORE purchased the solar farm there would be a fixed £20,000 a year fee to be paid by CORE to the local YCE community fund, even before YCE had formally acquired the farm for themselves. As the formalities of finance were getting sorted the fund has backed regeneration and rewilding projects, community learning groups like the men's shed, it’s bought instruments for local orchestras, solar panels for houses, roofs for buildings and a brand new plastic gig boat for Yealm Gig Club. The community fund also offered food credits to those in need over the pandemic. This flexible local spending power is central to the Community Solar Farm and has transformed the communities resilience and gives communities agency to make the changes they want to see.
Now’s the moment the Yealm team have been waiting for. Gearing up for 2023 the project is finally looking to take the two solar farms off of the hands of CORE and into the ownership of the people. There’s still the question of how does a community get that much money. For YCE they’re going to the people and will be launching a a share offer via Ethex to raise a minimum of £860,000. The offer to the public is simple… buy shares in the solar farm and help make your local community a greener, happier and more abundant place, in return we will pay you a share of the profits every year for five years until we buy back your shares at a fixed price. Obviously there are risks. What if the energy market tanks? Do we still get our payments?Will you still pay us back the money for our shares? Like all things there has to be a leap of faith, luckily for YCE the energy market is on the up and it doesn’t look like oil is becoming cheaper any time soon.
Back in Plymouth Sound we watched as Hornet, the YCE funded boat, finished triumphantly in first place for both the mens, womans and mixed teams. This was a team who’d been coming last all of last season due to their inability to train over winter. Seeing the people celebrate, hugging and generally over the moon was a joy. But looking at this deeper… Each of these projects is yet another place to connect, be active and feel a part of something. Looking forward the fund is looking to develop an electric water taxi system along the river and is even engaging with a large-scale rewilding project. Yealm sees itself as an example to be copied and followed. They’re willing to make mistakes but the end goal of good energy that does good is clear to see. It can not be understated how important these projects are. They are a goal post to aim for and once complete offer a benchmark for future generations to come. Just imagine a time where every village, town or city had its own YCE, its own community fund and had a central idea to gather around.
If you want to learn more about Yealm Community Energy their business plan is on their website and available for anyone to read and look at.