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Anthony Woolhouse

West Solent Solar

West Solent Solar Cooperative and Bournemouth Coastal AQM

Applying Quaker principle and practice made it happen.

I live in an eco house and understand just how effectively renewable energy can supply our energy needs.

It was however listening to the Swarthmore lecture ‘Costing not less than everything. Sustainability and spirituality in challenging times’ given by Pam Lunn at Yearly Meeting Gathering in Canterbury in 2011 that spoke loudly to my inner core:

This positive response to the Swarthmore lecture led to the Minute 36 commitment:

“The action we are ready to take at this time is to make a strong corporate commitment to become a low-carbon, sustainable community.”

Action follows a period of reflection. However the significance of raising sustainability to become a full part of our testimonies was key to giving me the confidence to undertake this adventure.

I suppose the adventure started in autumn 2013 with the search for potential sites.

You learn so much from each stage of the adventure. My wife has Danish relatives and I have seen how successful renewable energy has been there and how significant community ownership has been in this success.

In this country renewable energy projects are typically installed by large utility companies. This can, especially in the context of wind projects, result in community opposition to renewable energy.

There are a few examples of successful community renewable projects in this country. I am a member of Westmill Wind Coop and Westmill Solar Coop and learnt much from these projects. I learnt that one of the principles of cooperatives is that you help each other. Indeed we were given free consultancy from the Cooperative Enterprise Network.

I found the site when rejecting an earlier possibility as unsuitable. The estate agent said that he would show me another field, restored recently after a decade of gravel extraction, although it was not yet on the market.

When I saw the field the words came strongly “This is perfect!” It is 12.65 acres, flat, hidden from public view and south facing.

It was perfect for a solar farm. It is local – about 3 miles from home. We live in one of the sunniest parts of the UK, close to the Solent and opposite the Isle of Wight. It is also windy but community attitudes to wind turbines in this area are highly negative.

In contrast not a single person objected to our planning application. We talked to the neighbours before we applied for planning permission, which helped.

We formed the Cooperative in August 2013. The board consists of local people, mostly members of the New Forest or Lymington Transition groups. We have an ex corporate lawyer, a filmmaker, two engineers, and a local resident who worked as the sustainability manager of the London Olympics.

We offered membership to others and quickly built a membership of c.50 people. From these came offers of help: in IT, in community hedge planting (we have planting 1,400 hedgerow trees so far), and in helping with publicity and promotion.

We appointed Energy4all, a not for profit company based in the Lake District, that has successfully raised funds for, and provides a back office service for, some innovative wind cooperatives. We are their first solar project.

Thus the team was built and the project went forward. Of the six board members I am the only Quaker. One other board member is also in Quakers In Business. We use the Quaker Business Method in our board meetings.

Sometimes it seems like a project comes along that calls on inner reserves and on the experience gained in different parts of one’s working life. For example I started as a town planner so the planning application was something that I could do.

The word faith comes in strongly when I reflect on why this project was successful. The concern has been nationally tested and also locally as the project proceeded. Faith gives confidence and certainty that you are on the right route that God has chosen for you.

Communication has been key. Every two weeks or so I sent out a news bulletin to the growing membership of the cooperative. The BBC was supportive. We have been interviewed three times by BBC South TV, once by BBC Inside Out and twice by BBC Solent Radio. One comment from the BBC website – “we normally make contact when someone complains but no one did in your case!”

Our website received several hundred enquiries after the first television broadcast. A friend from school days several decades ago made contact having seen the TV interview.

We advertised in The Friend and in local newspapers. We held Open Days in Lymington and on the Isle of Wight.

It was a hugely busy year. We raised £150k under the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme and were oversubscribed. We raised c. £2.4 million under the Enterprise Investment Scheme in less than two months and were again over subscribed.

We appointed Solarcentury to design and build the solar farm. We are their first Community Energy project and they did a fantastic job. Solarcentury give 5% of their profits to a solar charity (SolarAid) that is providing solar lights to communities in Africa that previously used kerosene for lighting. This helps fight poverty and climate change.

The build took about 6 weeks. We worked closely with the contractors to ensure the project went smoothly. It was busy but happy. We all enjoyed listening and learning. We are now sharing this experience with local and other schools, and with community groups wishing to follow our example.

The site went live and started supplying electricity to the grid on the 27th. June 2014. We have installed 9,372 solar panels with a capacity of 2.4 MW, enough to supply 600 local households. All the electricity we generate is used within two miles of the site.

The picture below shows the location, close to the communities of Pennington and Lymington, and benefiting from the cooling sea breeze. The site fits beautifully into the landscape and does not dominate it. My vision is that every community in the country can have its own solar farm or wind farm.

West Solent Solar site

We have 450 members now in the cooperative and 50 bondholders. Several Quaker Meetings including my own (New Milton) invested, as did many individual Quakers.

About 53% of the money raised came from people who live within 30 miles of the site. We set out to be a local community energy project that the local community can be proud of. I think we have got there.

As a community project we do not stop community engagement once the site has been built. We have invited all the primary schools in the New Forest to visit the site and learn about solar energy. The first visits have already taken place.

We have built an observation hill for visitors so that they can see the whole site, using soil and materials recycled from the construction phase.

The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has sown more than 8 acres of wild flower seeds for us. Next year we will put colonies of bees on site and next autumn we hope to have sheep on site to feed on the grass.

We had an open day in September for members of the coop and also the staff of the contractors who had built the solar farm. More than 250 people came, as did the BBC.

We have our first AGM next April in the new sustainable community centre in Milford, close to our site. Our filmmaker will be showing a film he has produced showing the progress of the build form start to completion. Jeremy Leggett, the founder and chairman of Solarcentury, will be giving the keynote speech.

This project has had spiritual guidance from day one and this guidance continues.