We often say that the local school plays a crucial role in the community, but when one of the parents doing the school-run is a qualified engineer, who by his own admission is “passionate about the environment” and a self-confessed serious fan of renewable energy, that can take on a whole new meaning. For Nayland primary school, it involved becoming the centre of an energy-saving community enterprise, with sufficient installed solar capacity to generate at least 50 per cent of its annual needs – the biggest array on any primary school in the UK.
Man on a Mission
“The idea came from me dropping off my two daughters at the school and realising that the school has the biggest south facing roof in the village,” recalls Will Hitchcock, who having installed both solar hot water and photo-voltaic (PV) systems at his own family’s Nayland home, was ideally placed to appreciate its potential. “I set myself a mission to cover it in solar PV,” he says.
Will explains that the project arose as a spin off from the pre-existing ‘Transition Nayland’ (of which he is himself founder and chair); as the leader of the group’s energy activities, it was a logical step for him to become one of the founding directors of the newly-formed Green Energy Nayland. He began working with another member of the Transition Nayland committee to take the scheme forward, and between them, they identified two others who had the skills and experience the project needed – and then set about convincing them to join.
The original idea had been to install the system under a scheme run by one of the larger renewable energy companies, using the income produced by ‘Feed in Tariff’ to pay off the initial loan required, but in the end, it was decided that this approach was not entirely appropriate for the project’s needs. Consequently, believing that they could raise the capital necessary from the community itself – and so keep the Feed in Tariff revenue to benefit the community itself.
The Suffolk Foundation – an independent, grant making organisation for community groups and charities based in the county, which is supported by local philanthropists and donors – provided seed-corn funding. “Without that,” Will gratefully acknowledges, “it would have been much harder to set the organisation up.”
“The biggest time consumer was deliberating over the organisation structure and form,” he continues. “That led to us selecting to be an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) – a form of Co-Operative ‘for the benefit of the community’, which means we can distribute the surplus to the investors as well as the local community.”
The installation itself was funded by selling shares in this community enterprise to local residents, and with a minimum investment of only £250, the IPS route has opened up the widest possible participation to anyone interested in renewable energy – not just those able to meet the costs of installing their own systems.
The array installed comprises 84 solar PV panels, with a combined peak capacity of 15.54kW. While this was designed to be able to provide a minimum of 50 per cent of the school’s needs over the year, in practice, during the extended periods of clear weather in the region during 2011, the system generated over 100kWh a day – sufficient for the school and a number of nearby houses too.
Saving the school £600 or more a year – money which can be diverted to more directly educational purposes – is a pretty big result to start with, but the benefits of this project certainly don’t end there.
“It was the first community funded solar PV array in the UK,” Will says. “It raised awareness and bonded many people from the community.” The scheme has, he explains, pushed renewables and energy security right up the agenda for the school, the parents and throughout the local community – “a true win-win,” as he puts it.
Never-the-less, it’s a rare thing for any ground-breaking project not to have some hitches along the way, so are there any things which with the benefit of hindsight, he wished might have been done differently?
“The install was the easiest bit,” Will says, “and the lease with the school and Suffolk County Council is still in draft – that’s taken much longer than we thought.” If he could change one thing, though, he says it would be to apply for planning permission for the project earlier in the proceedings. “We thought that it was exempt, but it wasn’t and it took us to the wire in terms of timing.”
The group has published a comprehensive guide on their website, based on all these experiences, to make life a lot easier for anyone else thinking about doing a similar project, but with further projects being planned for the village – more steps on what Will describes as “a very long journey to energy security” – does he have any one particular tip to pass on?
“Don’t give up, it’s so rewarding when it comes together. Green Energy Nayland was the best project I have ever worked on and I see the result every day I walk past the school.”