A report by Sarita Patel
We need to respond to the climate crisis! In February this year, the UK government legally stated that its target is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. CovCAN wants to find out how businesses across Coventry are contributing to this target.
I started our investigation by interviewing Ed Jessamine, the director of Leamington-based IPV Flexgen which has been developing renewable energy projects focusing on solar, storage and distribution of renewable energy in both the UK and Ireland since 2010.
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Change in Public Attitude
During that time, Ed has seen a significant change in public attitude towards renewable energy projects. “It’s become more important in people’s minds over the last 2 or 3 years,” Ed said, “which is interesting for us because in the early days we received a significant amount of objection to what we were trying to do in terms of installing large-scale renewable energy projects. I think that now people recognise the value in what we’ve been trying to do.”
Today, the company is focusing more on development projects in the Coventry and Warwickshire area. They are planning a 15 megawatt solar project in North Warwickshire and are working on a number of other opportunities including projects to support the emerging EV market. “
These projects are an opportunity for local authorities, as well as communities, to become involved as partners for IPV Flexgen’s development process. “By demonstrating the value of these projects to the council and the communities, IPV Flexgen hope to drive more local activity and engagement for the benefit of the whole area. More community energy owned directly through individual investment and through the investment of the local authority. There are many successful examples of this, but more can be done.”
Change in Financial Environment
But public attitude to renewables is not the only change Ed has seen over the past 10 years. The UK government used to pay a feed-in tariff for electricity generated by solar panels. Ed says at that time a lot of investment funds were happy to put money behind solar. But when this payment ended, much of this investment fell away. However, all is not lost.
“We are now reaching a new phase in solar deployment where the funds are recognising that we can connect projects without subsidy and make them work.” However to achieve this most renewable energy developers are looking at very large scale projects to benefit from the economy of scale. It’s also easier for organisations that are already running a portfolio of renewable energy assets which receive subsidy support to absorb new subsidy free projects. However smaller community projects can still be viable, particularly if they are able to secure a long term agreement at a fixed price for the sale of the power generated, something local authorities could help with.
Working with Local Authorities
What should Coventry City Council be doing to promote renewable energy and reduce the city’s carbon footprint?
“The council and other local authorities need to concentrate on how they combine the generation of power into directly connecting properties and communities. Power can be used at a more local level and a big change can be instigated.”
How easy is it for Ed to work with local authorities?
Communication is the key. Ed says IPV Flexgen needs to work with local committees and get involved in driving forwards opportunities. When working with Coventry Council, IPV Flexgen aims to take a practical, can-do approach. Clarify the projects that we are working on and see where the Council can help. Capital can be raised through private investment, but projects require planning permission and there should be a joined up approach with local authorities if we are to achieve carbon reduction targets.
“With IPV Flexgen’s experience, we can demonstrate a projects financial viability. We want to Councillors understand that we are can move forward with a project without them, but also give them confidence in a project so that they can see it would be something great for the Council to back
“Some joined up thinking between local authorities and developers might help achieve more. What is clear when I look at a lot of policy is that it tends to go round in circles with nobody actually really taking the next step. As a private organisation, we can take more risk. We identify a decent project, work out whether it’s financially feasible and get on with it. That’s how we make our money. I think when you are a local authority there is a natural reticence to just jump in on projects in case they are wrong, but you only learn through experience.
“And there is a political element to this. There has to be cross party agreement to get on with a project and councillors have to be representative of their communities hence the importance of getting communities on board. We’d like to think that our experience will help give people confidence that if we are prepared to take a job forward and we believe it is viable on a private basis then it would also be a good project for councils to back. Its taking far too long but I don’t have as many people to persuade as the councils do to get project moving forward. So I’m slightly critical but I understand it’s challenging for them.
“I guess if you are a councillor you would want to do things that make a real statement, but sometime you have to back smaller projects to get on with something tangible and build internal experience. We have to back some of the grand plans with smaller things that added together help us reach the overall objective.”
Other Obstacles to Developing Solar Sites
Ed says the primary issue for all energy projects is to deal with the challenge of availability of the grid connection. “Often the grid connection is not affordable or available in a location that people would ideally want to develop in i.e. building on brown field sites or industrial roofs. However, the environmental areas that we have built renewable energy projects in have benefitted through the ecological measures that we introduce. These projects must have a quid pro quo in order to make the project viable – the connection needs to be affordable and feasible. This involves a balancing act between meeting the practical requirements and planning requirements involved in pursuing a project.
“Secondly, the costs of planning can be quite high too relatively speaking for smaller projects. Solar panel costs have lowered but the other costs in developing and deploying a project haven’t. By encouraging local authorities to pursue smaller projects could provide a key signifier for change. If we are to encourage community investment we need to limit the development cost.”
How do Flexgen fund their projects? Ed says that this is challenging, but less challenging than people may think.
“Solar photovoltaic (PV) assets have proven to be a good and reliable producer of electricity; as long as a project has a viable grid connection it can secure funding even without subsidy support, especially if there is a private wire connection and strong PPA (power purchase agreement) backing. In an ideal world local authorities and communities would work together on these projects. The local authority could invest in the projects and or buy the electricity generated from these projects and support them through planning”.
“Rather than raising separate taxes to invest in climate change projects, the local authorities could invest in their own solar parks, and encourage community investment with a fair annual return, and use the profit they make to tackle other climate change activities. In order to do this, we need to show the local authority and Council that this is workable”.
So is generating power from solar energy cost-effective? Ed replies with an emphatic YES.
“The main driver is the grid connection cost. The issue is whether there is a capacity on the network to accept the supply of power being generated. If there is not then this means updating and upgrading at the primary sub-station to which costs will start going through the roof. This is why we need to also focus on local power distribution solutions. This is particularly important for an energy hungry region like Coventry and Warwickshire that generates very little of the power it needs. The local authorities could support expanded development through power purchase agreements (PPA) with local generators. However, this is much easier said than done”.
In 2015, the Conservative government cut financial aid by 65%. Cuts for small-scale and large projects angering both the solar industry and environmentalists, who dismissed the moves as ‘huge and misguided’.
Does Ed have a message for the people of Coventry?
“We are still at the beginning of a really challenging journey. The City Council and the community need to get together to embrace this challenge. People need to understand that this challenge is mainstream now – it’s not just for the few to tackle, it is for the many. 2021 is an important year for Coventry. If the City were to install around 8 megawatts of roof-mounted solar during this time it could offset 2021 tons of carbon from its overall emissions in the year (12% of the Council’s overall target)”.
“Often, good ideas and proposals are put forward and discussed, but it is the implementation which is key. We need to find and use the skills and capital available locally to get the council, the community and local industry engaged to support one another because this is everyone’s challenge.”