Village on front-line of fracking protests installs first community-owned solar panels

The West Sussex village of Balcombe, made internationally famous as the site of strong protests over potential drilling by fracking firm Cuadrilla, today completed the installation of its first...

The West Sussex village of Balcombe, made internationally famous as the site of strong protests over potential drilling by fracking firm Cuadrilla, today completed the installation of its first community-owned solar panels.

Local energy co-operative REPOWERBalcombe was set up by local residents, with the help of carbon cutting campaign 10:10, as a positive way to unite the community around clean, locally owned power after controversy over oil drilling by Cuadrilla in the summer of 2013.

The co-operative has installed a total of 69 panels on the roof of a cow shed at the nearby family-owned Grange Farm as part of an ambitious plan to install enough solar power to match the entire electricity use of the village.

“It’s great to be involved in doing something for our community and the environment, and nice to see the cow-shed roof being put to good use. Plus we get a reduction on our electricity bills – it really is a win-win-win,” said Chris Jarvis, the owner of Grange Farm. “The cows don’t seem to have noticed.”

The panels will produce 18,000kWh of electricity each year. Grange Farm will always be able to buy the electricity generated for at least 30% cheaper than the best price it can get elsewhere, while the co-op will retain the government feed-in tariff subsidy to pay dividends to its members and to fund local community projects tackling fuel poverty, energy efficiency and environmental education.

This first installation coincides with an important week for fracking in the UK, with the Infrastructure Bill going through parliament, the call for a moratorium on fracking from a committee of MPs, and Lancashire County Council’s decision on Cuadrilla’s drilling application.

“We are delighted to have our first solar panel installation completed,” said REPOWERBalcombe spokesman, Joe Nixon. “With the continued threat from drilling that has disrupted life in Balcombe, we now truly have a common goal to bring our community together in a positive, responsible way”.

REPOWERBalcombe is now negotiating partnerships with three local schools, including Balcombe Primary School, to install solar panels on its rooftops, to be paid for by a community share issue to local residents worth roughly £300,000. This would generate the equivalent of 10% of the village’s electricity demand.

The Grange Farm pilot project was funded by investments from founder members of the co-op, who stand to benefit from tax relief. However changes announced by George Osborne in December mean that from 6 April co-operatives such as REPOWERBalcombe will no longer be able to claim tax relief – diminishing the value to shareholders and reducing the viability of future projects. In addition, the retreat on Monday by energy minister Amber Rudd MP in announcing that fracking would be banned in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty doesn’t remove the threat of non-fracked oil drilling from the village (which is in the High Weald AONB).

“Balcombe has come to symbolise the choice Britain faces about our energy future: fracking or clean, renewable energy. It is particularly apt that the community here have installed their first solar panels in the in the same week that Parliament has cast fresh doubt over the whole fracking project in the UK,” said Leo Murray, 10:10’s community energy campaigner.

“Seeing these panels go up is a major milestone on REPOWERBalcombe’s journey, and their first small steps are blazing a trail for other communities to follow. The people here are part of a fast-growing movement to take back control of Britain’s energy future from giant, fossil-powered energy companies.”

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