Last week saw the launch of what I understand is the UK’s second ever solar power buyers’ club. ‘Juice from your Roof’ offers discounted photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal panels in south-west London, centred on the borough of Merton. They will be supplied by Solar Technologies, which was bought by British Gas for £2.8m in 2008.
The discount rises as more panels are installed: from 5.4% for just ten installations, rising to 12.5% for a more impressive 100 installations. That means a top-of-the-range four-kilowatt PV system would cost £12,037, down from £13,757. However, the full price will be charged at point of sale: the discounts will be rebated as more installations are made.
The launch on 22 March was attended by about 50 of the 100-plus households and businesses signed up to the scheme.
Fairness means I must declare an interest: I have been closely involved in the project since its inception by Alban Thurston, last year.
It was formerly part of local charity Sustainable Merton, of which I am a trustee. As the law prevents charities endorsing commercial enterprises, this relationship had to be ended before a decision on the responses to tender could be made. But my involvement continued in a personal capacity, and other volunteers joined in to help.
The project was inspired by the ‘Solar 100’ project, run by Transition Town Marlow in partnership with supplier Freesource and renewable energy provider Good Energy. The group managed to agree a maximum 20% discount for 100+ installations, although it has reached only half this target.
Meanwhile, a variety of similar initiatives are popping up. Three have been established through the solarclubs.com umbrella in East Sussex, Brighton and Lewes, and in Tunbridge Wells. Others operate in Wantage, Oxfordshire and in London’s Muswell Hill. Transition town initiatives in leafy Surrey and Berkshire are also mulling it over, I am told. It is a fair assumption that others are too.
What all of these locations have in common is affluence. Solar panels, whether thermal or PV, are not cheap, although the substantial profit margin provided by the feed-in tariff (FIT) is clearly enticing.
More than a few suppliers are starting to offer free panels, which offer the benefit of free electricity but without the FIT. But the buyers club established that, all things considered, in most circumstances it makes more financial sense to take a loan and buy the panels outright.
I gather that discount solar clubs were important in driving Germany’s take-up of solar power, which is vastly greater than the UK. But despite the activity I have described, Mr Thurston does not hold much hope of them becoming as common.
“English people don’t believe in community,” he says, noting that he recently lost his job at a PV installation firm trying to replicate the scheme elsewhere. If volunteers were energising their communities that would be great – but there’s far too little evidence, too much talking and not enough action, he concludes.
Referral schemes organised by local councils may fare better, such as Action Surrey. This provides energy efficiency advice and has a roster of six solar installers. The Energy Saving Trust is working on a similar idea, according to consultant Paul Bourgeois, as “a handholding exercise for householders”. Plans to help set up community-driven schemes like Juice from your Roof appear to have fallen to budget cuts.