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Flash Gordon, and a decade of different thinking

partner blog | Apr 2021

Westmill Solar

By Tom Parkinson, from Younity innovation partner Westmill Solar.

The Westmill solar park started to generate electricity in July 2011. Westmill’s members came together to make a practical contribution to decarbonisation – and pioneered what was, at the time, the world’s largest community-owned solar park.

When it was built, Westmill represented over 1% of total UK solar capacity and cost around £15 million. Government subsidies were available to kick-start the ‘green revolution’ and succeeded in doing so. Where Westmill led, others followed and improved. 10 years on, solar costs have tumbled. A similar 5MW site could now be built for a quarter of the price we paid - and Westmill is dwarfed by projects such as the (subsidy-free) 350MW Cleve Hill solar park in Kent.

Between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of UK electricity generated from renewable sources increased from 8% to 40%. Coal-fired generation has been almost eliminated. The supply market has also changed substantially. Co-op Energy was launched in 2011, one of the new entrants who took on (and in some cases took over) the incumbent ‘Big 6’. Smart meters, battery storage and other technological developments offer the prospect of more transparent energy pricing and better matching of supply and customer demand.

But the past decade has also seen missed opportunities and reminders of the scale of the climate challenge. The chance to develop the UK’s tidal power capability through a pilot project in Swansea Bay has languished despite widespread local support. The community sector remains on the fringes of UK energy policy and generators like Westmill are still not permitted to sell to our members the electricity we produce. In the meantime, 2015 – 2020 have been the six hottest years on record and (despite a COVID-induced reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020), greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise.

It seems clear that we need to do more – and do it more quickly. Combatting climate change requires co-operation, at (and across) international, national and local levels. It needs people, organisations, policy-makers and regulators to set ambitious targets, foster experimentation and encourage collaboration and shared learnings.

Westmill Solar (like the neighbouring Westmill Wind Farm) is a co-operative. Both organisations have proved over the past decade that it is possible to be ecologically sustainable and financially successful. We exist for the benefit of our members and they are our key strength, a mix of the passionate, informed and politically active and those whose interest in sustainability is more limited. However, in our experience shared success stimulates a greater interest across the membership - not just in expanding renewables generation but also in reducing energy usage and decarbonising more broadly, whether through switching to an electric car, eating less meat or shunning single-use plastic.

Ultimately our membership (and our links with other organisations and their members) facilitates learning and joined-up thinking at a community level – it is a grass-roots complement (and counter-point) to government policy-making.

The UK needs to quadruple renewable energy capacity to meet our ‘net zero’ targets so Westmill’s experience in community involvement should be a valuable resource going forward. But our biggest opportunity (and challenge) is to expand and unleash our ‘people power’, not just to help build more renewable generation but to encourage urgent climate action on all fronts locally, nationally and internationally. It is in all our interests (including our members’) to protect the planet we live on.

Flash Gordon famously had 14 hours left to save the world. We may have a little more time than this but we can’t afford to wait 14 hours before we start. Westmill members did not wait, they just started. And if we follow that example, we should be able to look back a decade from now and say that we really did make a difference.