Repowering London: Green energy from the grassroots

Repowering London: Green energy from the grassroots

Stand back and on tiptoe and you can see a layer of crystalline silicon slabs clamped to the roof of the Westway Sports Centre, near Latimer Road, north Kensington. Nearby is the shell of Grenfell. Motor vehicles roar by above. But amid this realm of catastrophe and fumes, green new life has taken root.

The solar panels appeared in October 2022 after the sports centre joined forces with the North Kensington Community Energy (NKCE) community benefit society – a form of co-operative – to start a local renewable energy project. The sports centre provided its roof space free of charge, NKCE paid for the panels to be installed and now sells the sports centre the electricity they produce for a lower price than it would be paying anyone else.

From its income, NKCE maintains the panels, provides a three per cent return to its financial investors and pours anything left into a community fund, from which grants are distributed to other local groups of various kinds.

It is a business model built upon the pioneering Brixton Energy project, founded in 2011, which over the next few years set up three solar power stations on roofs in two local housing estates – Loughborough and Roupell Park.

Interest from elsewhere led to the creation in 2013 of Repowering London – itself a community benefit society – whose mission was to see the Brixton Energy example built upon. There are now more than a dozen individual schemes.

As well as the Westway Sports Centre, NKCE, born in 2018, has three other solar projects – one at the Dalgarno Community Centre and two at local primary schools. Lambeth Community Solar, set up in 2019, has panels on two schools. And there are single installations in Newham, Hackney, Aldgate and Vauxhall. More look set to follow, notably in Newham, and a Hammersmith & Fulham community energy group has been formed.

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Éva Goudouneix is community development manager of Repowering London, which receives funding from an array of sources, including the Greater London Authority (City Hall), the National Lottery’s climate action fund and Trust for London.

She explains that initial impetus behind projects can come from a number of directions. In some cases it has been provided by a local action group. In Newham, the council has been the prime mover, offering access to a number of its public buildings: solar power has been supplying East Ham library since October and the Beckton Globe and Stratford libraries are set to follow.

Repowering London’s purpose is to guide and facilitate such processes, such as by making links with local environmental groups and helping with the organisation of family and other events to build local interest.“We always take a grassroots approach,” Éva says.

The hope is that this will bolster support for the co-ops’ ideas and encourage take-up of – to give them their official title – their accompanying community share offers. Éva describes this form of raising cash for the co-ops as “a form of crowdfunding”, though it is one that yields a small return – three per cent a year – for those who put money in.

The average individual investment in the projects as a whole has been £300 or so. The biggest total so far accumulated from community share issues is £200,000.

Investors automatically become society members, but others can join by paying a £1 fee. This gives them the same voting rights when it comes to the allocation of the community fund, which might typically be in the region of £3,000.

This is small scale stuff at present, but it has large ambitions. “We’re very much about making a change in the energy system,” Éva says. “As we expand our model it will mean a move from a centralised and privatised and dirty way of generating energy to a decentralised, people-owned and renewable way. Real transformation is at the core of what we do.”

The very experience of volunteering means people can acquire new knowledge and skills. Repowering London also runs training courses for teenagers and young adults, and drama-based educational programmes in primary schools.

“We see ourselves very much as doing mentoring and training,” Éva says. “We prioritise working with people who’ve been most disadvantaged by the current energy system or have experience of fuel poverty. They can learn what it is to lead a small company and the work can be a stepping stone to employment in the green sector.”

In February, On London was invited to sit in on a meeting of co-op leaders from across London, held at the Tabernacle arts centre in Notting Hill. Those present included Etta Dale, who is Repowering London’s solar development manager and secretary of NKCE.

“I’m doing this because I truly believe that community energy is a route to solving the climate crisis,” she said. “It’s one of the many routes that goes beyond renewable to transform our relationship with energy, our relationship with the world and our relationships with each other. Community energy is a way of engaging people directly.”

Etta first became involved with NKCE as one of its investors. Today, it has a core group of six or eight volunteers who’ve been involved for a long time, usually augmented with four or five others who often bring valuable skills: one, a graduate hoping to move into engineering, did a “rooftop analysis” of possible additional sites for panel installations.

“The just transition to net zero is not just about giving people jobs,” Etta said. “It’s about making them active participants. If we’re going to reduce our energy demand, people need to be invested in it physically, emotionally and financially.”

A really big boost to the community energy model would come if the co-ops were allowed to linked up with private domestic consumers as well as public sector buildings and entities. This will mean a change in legislation.

There may be hope: MPs are examining this, there’s been a private member’s Local Electricity Bill and enthusiasm for the NKCE’s endeavours has been cross-party. There’s been support and interest from Conservative-run Kensington & Chelsea Council and energy efficiency minister Lord Callanan, and visits from both local Tory MP Felicity Buchan and her Labour general election challenger Joe Powell in the company of shadow energy security secretary Ed Miliband.

For Repowering London, theirs is a social as well as an environmental mission. “We’re very much about not only a greener future but also a fairer future,” Éva Goudouneix stresses. “We don’t think the solution is only in decarbonising or net-zeroing everything, but also using the energy transition as an opportunity to tackle huge inequality – to create new jobs, to get people together to learn new skills and to take the transition into our own hands.”

This article is the first in a series of five to be published by On London in the run-up to the election for Mayor of London on 2 May. They are kindly supported by Trust For London, which provides  funding for each of the five projects to be covered. On London’s policy on supported content can be read here. Middle photo shows NKCE volunteers on the Westway centre’s roof.

Categories: Analysis

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