The Times at Grange Farm

The Times, November 28 2019, 5:00pm

When Gordon Jarvis was asked by a group of villagers if he would allow solar panels on the roof of his cowshed, he agreed straight away.

“The roof is here, the sun shines on that side. At the end of the day there are two people profiting from them: me and the people that own them,” he says, gesturing across the farmyard towards his barn.

So the cowshed at Grange Farm in Crawley Down, West Sussex, became home to 69 solar panels. It generates four fifths of the farm’s electricity and for the rest Mr Jarvis pays 3p a unit less than a commercial energy supplier would charge.

Click for original article and Tom Parker on video

The cows continue to munch their hay, oblivious to how the technology above them is contributing to practical action on climate change. “Everybody seems to be happy,” Mr Jarvis, 73, says.

What is unusual about the arrangement in this picturesque village is that it was put in place by a community group. It raised £30,000 to pay for the 18kW solar photovoltaic system through a share issue among villagers interested in renewable energy and other environmentalists.

Their community co-operative owns and maintains the panels and sells surplus electricity to the national grid, allowing them to repay investors’ capital plus a dividend of 5 per cent.

The catalyst behind the initiative was Possible, a charity that works to bring people together to combat climate change. It is being supported by The Times in this year’s Christmas appeal.

Grange Farm is six miles from Balcombe, which was at the centre of environmental protests in 2013 after Cuadrilla Resources sought permission to drill an exploratory fracking well. A protest camp sprang up on the outskirts of the village as campaigners from across the country converged on the site and there were dozens of arrests. Villagers were also split, with most against the drilling but some supporting it.

A month after the demonstrations Possible helped to organise a public meeting in Balcombe and brought in speakers to explain how a community-owned renewable energy project could generate enough electricity to match the entire consumption of the village and its 760 homes. Out of this meeting RepowerBalcombe was born. Possible, at that time known as 10:10, provided technical advice, a start-up loan of £5,000 and helped bring in investors, although most members are local.

So a village that found itself on the front line of demonstrations against fracking instead became a pioneer of renewable energy.

Possible does not run protest campaigns to stop things happening but adopts a can-do attitude to look for ways to bring people together to tackle climate change. It was founded in 2009 by environmentalists behind a film called The Age of Stupid, which imagined the world in 2055 beset by rising sea levels and natural disasters and asked why too little was done to avert these. Its initial focus was practical action to reduce carbon emissions by 10 per cent in 2010, hence its original name. It rebranded itself this year as Possible to generate innovative ideas to stimulate individual and local action to bring about a carbon-neutral society.

Its work with villagers in Balcombe illustrates how community projects to cut carbon emissions can grow in scale. From its first panels on top of a cowshed, REPOWERBalcombe has grown in reach and ambition with solar arrays on five local schools.

Ben Turney, head teacher at Turners Hill primary school, which has a 16kW system with 65 panels, said that they saved the school hundreds of pounds a year in electricity bills and added a practical element to science lessons. “Their investment into the school has been fantastic,” Mr Turney said.

The group’s largest development was frustrated: it won planning permission for a 5 megawatt solar park at another farm in West Hoathly but government changes to subsidies and tax relief made it impossible as a community-owned project. It was taken over by a power company that pays the group several thousand pounds a year, creating a community benefit fund that paid for LED lighting for local schools.

Since its launch RepowerBalcombe has raised £191,000 from 85 investors, who are paid a dividend of 5 per cent as well as capital repayments. There is a waiting list for new members.

“In this area now solar generation is a major part of the grid, which it was not when we started,” Mr Parker, 52, who is head gardener at a local estate, said. “The primary motivation for the members to invest is to do something positive. Having said that it is always much easier to invest and do something positive if someone is going to pay you a little bit of a return. If it happens to be better than the bank, that’s a win-win.”

Greg Hurst for The Times