interviews

Bristol – the UK’s Solar Capital

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Bristol is a city with very big ideas, and having just won European Green Capital status after three to four years of being shortlisted, the city certainly doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels. Kerry Burns of Bristol Solar City talks to REM about the city’s exciting future plans which are already starting to happen. ‘It’s happening now’ he says. And so it is.
Bristol – the UK’s Solar Capital

Bristol Solar City is a massively exciting project that has steadily been developed over the last three or four years or so. With the election of a green-motivated mayor and the recent winning of European Green Capital status, the time is ripe to seize numerous opportunities to revolutionize Bristol’s energy infrastructure. The aim is simple and positive: Deliver energy independence for Bristol, reduce costs in order to make energy more affordable, create jobs and decarbonise. Inspired and motivated by the achievements in Germany over recent years, Bristol Solar City is a project that is determined to promote Bristol as the UK’s ‘solar capital’.

Bristol Solar City’s Kerry Burns talks to REM and tells us all about Bristol’s exciting solar future.

What is Bristol Solar City?

It’s a group of organizations that have got together over the last three years with a common aim to increase the amount of solar that is being used and installed in Bristol, to increase the profile of solar, to increase the number of jobs in the sector in Bristol, to retain jobs and to try to localize solar in Bristol. When I say ‘Bristol’ I mean Greater Bristol, which we have defined as the Local Enterprise Partnership or LEP functional market area, being the four counties of South Gloucestershire, Bristol, North Somerset and BANES. When we first set out we were looking at options for manufacturing all sorts of things, it’s unlikely we’re going to be able to pick up the manufacture of crystalline panels but there are all sorts of other huge technologies that I think we can now start to steal a march on manufacturing, so broadly speaking we’re aiming to achieve 1GW of solar in Bristol by 2020.

What are the main aims of the project?

We have three key aims in particular. Bristol City Council conducted a solar mapping exercise with consultants coming in to map Bristol’s roof area. From that we figured that there is a potential of 700MW rooftop-only solar in Bristol City. If we aim for 1GW even 700MW would just about match the energy requirements of Bristol City. The idea is that we will try to foster energy independence for the city, that is what it is about. We as a group of companies and organizations see solar now as energy production but increasingly also as demand reduction, that is the major sea change that we see happening now.

In what way is Bristol ideally placed to become a ‘Solar City’?

For a number of different reasons, we have a very good installer network here, that’s the first thing. We also have the highest irradiance level of any of the UK’s major cities. If you look at a solar irradiation map we have a very good level here in Bristol, so that’s another starting point. Also there are numerous very novel things going on in Bristol, we have several research institutions working on new solar developments, first of all in generation but also more importantly in energy storage, which is a key focus at the moment for the industry.

The city has also just won the European Green Capital award. There is a lot of motivation going on within Bristol with a lot of green organizations having established their headquarters here. Bristol is not just a very green city, it’s also a very ‘green-doing’ city, and on top of that, suddenly we get a mayor in who is very green minded, particularly with regard to solar having already made his solar alliances before becoming mayor and setting out his stall.

There is also a lot of energy and enthusiasm for solar within the community. We have several community solar cooperatives, and we also have the UK’s first installer cooperative going on. Eight of the local companies got together and formed the city’s first installer cooperative which is able to deal effectively with solar project development. That has never been done before, not even in Europe. People who normally fight each other for jobs said, ‘right let’s take a step back, get together, see what can we do as a group.’ That is quite a novel development and we’re really fortunate that we have a legacy of that kind of stuff going on in Bristol.

How big a role did Bristol Solar City play in the achievement of the European Green Capital award?

Well I have taken part in numerous discussions on this over the years and it was one of the things that we felt was deliverable by 2020. Now we have until 2015 to really get the momentum going and to get some really large-scale installation programmes under way. To be honest, I don’t know how large a part the solar sector played in it, as we have all these sectors going on in Bristol – the food sector, the waste sector, clean air, clean water, education and so forth. There is so much going on. However I think the ‘solar city’ idea was one of the things that people felt they could rally around and so I am sure that played a vital part in it. Because the ‘solar city’ project is target-driven the Green Capital Partnership were able to say ‘Well there is an organization trying to achieve this’, so it certainly didn’t do any harm that’s for sure.

What would the achievement of 1GW solar PV actually mean for Bristol?

It would mean a greater degree of energy independence for the city. There’s lots of discussion going on nationally about supply and so on but I think the reality is that we are in a slightly sticky place. Debates are  going on about gas, about fracking, which may not happen, but we do know that there is light happening every day, we do know what the minimum amount of that is likely to be and so we can plan for that across the course of the year. So it’s relatively reliable, and what the industry is working on now is storage. Generate during the day, use in the evening and you really start to create a reliable supply of energy.

We want to see cheap energy for Bristol. We want to see the cheapest energy in the UK and we’re absolutely serious about that. If people can generate 50 percent of their energy themselves, can install their own energy on their roof, or have it installed by organizations or the council or whatever, then that takes away the concerns they have about escalating energy prices. Okay so maybe they have a loan taken out but they know also that the price is fixed, that it’s not going to suddenly go up by 16 percent and so on, so it’s about fixing that, fixing the costs.

And we’re not just talking about homes, we’re also talking about businesses. The LEP Low Carbon Group, the LEP as you probably know is one of the replacements for the RDA (Regional Development Agency), is very keen to make Bristol more competitive, and if we can do that by saying to businesses ‘Look, you can fix your own energy costs’ then great! We want them to reduce their energy use and we want them to reduce their energy costs but also we want them to fix their costs so that they can retain jobs and be more competitive on the local, European and international stage. That is the kind of thing we’re looking for. Real economics, not just happy and fluffy, we’ve moved on from that now. In about two years we’re going to see grid parity, realistically it’s starting to happen in some of the largest industrial areas already and we’re going to see that very soon. We’ve been talking about that for years, and although we do have a programme for new nuclear capacity going on, realistically that’s going to take a long time to come on stream. We can do solar now. We can put it in, turn on a switch and it’s on within two to three weeks. It’s ‘now technology’, so the thing to do is to just go ahead and do it. That’s the way we see it.

How can Bristol Solar City best encourage homes and businesses to take up solar in spite of the large up-front costs during a recession?

There have been free solar programmes in the past, and there are still some around but we’ve seen a reduction in that model recently. However, the community co-operatives in Bristol are currently working on projects that are quite large-scale. These things do tend to take some time to come through but we’re seeing significant progress on how those models are going to deliver. There are pilots going on already, not just solar PV but also solar thermal as well.

The key thing that is changing is the availability of finance. The Green Deal is there to use although the uptake has been fairly low so far. Nevertheless I think the Green Deal is really positive. Alongside that we are able to offer finance, so we can say ‘Use your feed-in tariff, your export, and your savings to pay for, from day one, your repayments. At the end of five years you’ve repaid your costs, it’s then yours for another fifteen years and you’re not out of pocket. We do this with mobile phones, and with cars, so why not solar?. When was the last time you heard anyone say ‘there’s £35,000, I’ll have a top-of-the-range for cash please’? We’ve got to change our mindset with some of this technology, and the Green Deal is very much doing that with the savings paying back the investments. We see solar doing that too.  

Bristol City Council is working on some very large-scale projects. I am not in a position to say very much more about those but I know there is a team working hard to get funding for the deployment of large-scale solar in Bristol. There was a team present at a recent aerospace and defence conference looking to get a £29,000, 000 solar investment in place across the city with the possibility of 7,000 homes across the city having solar installed, among the council’s own housing stock. That is a significant solar roll-out. It’s a major quantum leap from where we are now to where we’re going, and it’s starting. This has been going on for three and a half to four years and we’re now at the point where it has really started to gain momentum and here we are with the launch today. So there are significant benefits, not least of which of course is the creation of jobs. We want jobs that are local. If we have qualified staff capable of delivering projects over the next fifteen or even the next seven years then let’s do that. Let’s see if we can generate jobs and money that is retained within the local economy.

What kind of organizations and businesses are you working with on this?

The key organizations we are working with are the local authorities. Bristol City Council in particular has really taken a key step forward on this. We’re also involved with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), working across the sectors but particularly with the LEP Low Carbon Group. We have installers, wholesalers, and we’re looking at manufacturing. Our attendance at the aerospace and defence conference was about saying ‘hey, that sector is quite good at large, international, collaborative projects’. Love it or not, the international defence industry is actually quite good at doing that. They have the ability to transfer knowledge and skills across the sector, they do it. So we’re talking about some of the ways they could be involved in terms of the solar refit. A lot of the technology we take for granted today from mobile phones to thin-film solar, a lot of that comes from the defence industry. I am not holding up a flag for that industry, I am just trying to say that there are ways in which we can involve other sectors. It’s not just about the development of those other sectors, it’s about their decarbonisation as well and the development of low-carbon options. We are in a really good position for that here in Bristol, we have a vibrant aerospace sector for example and so we have the ability to really make something of that opportunity.

What kind of financial and funding support do you have?

Bristol City Council are bringing in quite a lot of funding via Europe, and hope to lever in quite a lot more, so there’s funding there. We also have a lot of information this weekend [the Bristol Solar City Launch] explaining just how much the upfront costs have come down, by over 50 percent, because of the demand and the market. This is stabilizing now due to issues with China and so forth, but there are around three to four different funding streams available. There are people who are keen to fund community solar schemes, there are people interested in working with local authorities, there are private investors looking at land for development as solar parks, people looking at roofs, particularly large roof spaces. So while we at the moment are not exactly coming up here with a million pound cheque, what we are saying is ‘Come and be a part of this!’

The more we create a critical mass around this project the better it will become. The reason I cottoned on to this is because I visited Freiburg in Germany and saw that they were doing more there three or four years ago than we were doing across the entire United Kingdom, and quite frankly I was embarrassed by that. I thought to myself ‘if you can do this here, so can we’. So I’ve been pushing this for quite some time now. I’ve been back to talk to the Freiburg team on several occasions since then and they’ve said to me ‘just start something and people will come to it.’ So we’re trying to do the same thing here. The Freiburg team told us ‘get community groups involved and on-board from the start and the critical mass will grow and grow and grow.’ Germany has taken advantage of their particular circumstances or used their common sense to develop a key solar market, and I don’t think we’re going to duplicate that overnight with the current technology. However, with the new technology that is starting to come through it becomes really exciting and with the aerospace industry and the manufacturing and all the other things that we have got going for us in Bristol, we can really steal a march on the new technology. We’ve got to stop thinking inside the box. We have to look beyond the little crystalline solar cells to all the other technology such as graphene and nanotubes and other bits and pieces. We can do that too. We can manufacture that. Why not? There’s investment to be made here and there’s jobs to be created.

How can people get involved in this?

Well we’ve got this big event happening in Bristol this weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with lots of information available, particularly business-focused during the day on Friday. But it’s not just about this weekend. When the event is over on Monday, that’s when the hard work starts. We’ve got a lot of people together where we’ll say what we’re aiming to do. From Monday onwards we’ll be asking ourselves and others, ‘How do we do this?’ ‘What are the mechanics?’ We will be talking to companies at director level and saying ‘this isn’t about fluffy, it’s not about Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘greenwash’, it’s about fixing your energy so you can make real money and create real jobs.’ It’s about moving from ‘alternative’ to appropriate, that’s where we going.

There’s also the website which will be a critical initial point of contact. Bristol Solar City will become a banner that people can work under. It will act as a central point for information about solar and a place from which people can disseminate information through the social network and everything else. From here, during the course of this year, you will see some fairly large-scale tenders going out with a very significant ratcheting-up of the numbers of solar PV systems being installed across Bristol. One thing we’re also very keen to do is focus on quality, not knocking out the cheapest possible systems in the quickest possible time. We’ve always tried to focus on best practice. We employed new MCS standards before those standards even appeared and so we’ve always been known for quality and that’s where we want to go.

This weekend there will be lots of things going on. One of the things I want to do is to bring those activities together. There will be a communities day with community groups such as Friends of the Earth, Bristol Power Co-op and others. By the time your readers see this there will be a launch of the Bristol Strategy for Energy which is well ahead of DECC’s Community Energy Strategy and so yet again we’re ahead of the game. Ultimately I would like to see Bristol Solar City and the energy groups come together, because we’re all doing the same thing. It’s all about reducing energy costs, decarbonising energy, energy independence. We can do it, and we are doing it.

Kerry Burns is also General Manager of the Bristol-based solar energy firm Solarsense

Further information:

Bristol Solar City

Bristol LEP Low Carbon Group

Bristol Green Capital

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I.Maule
Congratulations from Spain, a country where solar energy -yes, solar, it is not a mistake- is persistently harassed by the ultra right government that supports the traditional utilities that sell imported fossil energy.