Sunshine social enterprise: UK’s largest community-owned solar park that's an 'example for the world'
Construction will begin this year for the UK’s largest community-owned solar park thanks to “unprecedented” interest in community shares, government funding and a loan from sustainable bank Triodos.
Ray Valley Solar in Oxfordshire will have a total installed capacity of 19.2 megawatts (MWp) and aims to generate enough power for more than 6,000 homes annually from its ground-mounted panels.
It will be built and operated by Low Carbon Hub, a social enterprise in Oxford that develops community-owned renewable energy projects. The new facility, expected to operate from the autumn, will be its 48th renewable energy project. Surpluses are expected to reach £10m or more over the project’s lifetime and will support local initiatives that reduce energy demand, such as grants for energy efficiency measures, or tackle climate change.
To fund Ray Valley Solar, Low Carbon Hub raised £4.5m through a community share offer. The original target was £1.5m by March 2021, but this was extended to £3m and the offer was closed early due to “unprecedented” interest, according to a spokesperson. The other £1.5m came from investments made into the share offer in 2020.
We were bowled over by support for this share offer, which really demonstrates support for a better energy system
Dr Barbara Hammond, CEO at Low Carbon Hub, said: “We were bowled over by the level of support for this share offer, which really demonstrates people’s enthusiasm for the project and support for a better energy system, one based on renewables that benefits communities.
Triodos Bank UK is providing a £2.4m construction facility, and additional £2m facilities to manage cashflow during construction. Once commissioned, Triodos will refinance the construction facility into a long-term operating facility. Low Carbon Hub intends to raise further equity later to maximise community ownership of the project.
The Triodos loan was “crucial” in implementing the project, according to the Low Carbon Hub spokesperson, who said it had been “hugely positive working with a lender so closely aligned with our goals”.
Low Carbon Hub also secured £2.3m in short-term funding from Oxford City Council and a grant from Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire). The solar park is a trial site for Project LEO, a £40m project investigating how local energy can help the transition to a zero-carbon energy system.
Chris Cullen, relationship manager at Triodos Bank UK, described the Ray Valley Solar project as “vitally important”, not only for its local impact but also through the Project LEO research, which would benefit the wider UK.
We need projects like this to demonstrate that community energy can play a key part in helping us achieve our net zero targets
“We need projects like this to demonstrate that community energy can play a key part in helping us achieve our net zero targets, all while keeping profits within that community to further benefit local people,” he said.
Hammond said: “We want to make Oxfordshire an example for the world. To show how the right investment, used in the right way, can help meet our energy needs in a way that’s good for people and good for the planet.”
Triodos first entered the renewables market in the mid-1980s. It has recently made loans to a new community hydropower scheme in Lochaber, Scotland and to a solar farm near Stratford-upon-Avon, the largest community solar park at the time.
Photo: Bure Park Primary School in Bicester, Oxfordshire, which got help from Low Carbon Hub to install 240 solar panels (credit: Low Carbon Hub)
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