Investing in communuity solar

Gavin Corbett hails the next phase of community solar power in the Capital.

Energy isn’t sexy. That may come as something of a shock. Bring together a bunch of energy enthusiasts and you will be soon be drowning in a sea of acronyms and a tangle of initiatives.

But warmth in our northerly country and power to operate the many things which attend our daily lives is one of the basics. It’s why wars have been fought over oil; and why miners’ strikes in the 1970s and 1980s were so totemic.

Energy is also a big deal in shaping our future Edinburgh. Heating homes and workplaces makes up over 40% of city carbon emissions. If Edinburgh is to achieve its target of being a zero carbon city by 2030 – and there is really no choice but to do so – then the scale of change needed is breath-taking.

In that context, the work of any single body can seem small. As a director of Edinburgh Community Solar Co-operative I am very proud of the work that has been done since 2015. We have raised £1.4m from a community share issue to install solar panels on 24 public buildings, both for use by those buildings and export to the grid. Well over a thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide have been saved in the process and any profits above community share dividend have been shared among local projects.

So I am delighted that a second phase involving at least 6 more buildings, and up to 11, is being launched this summer. Those include the council staff headquarters at Waverley Court and Craiglockhart Leisure Centre in my own ward. There’s already been a large number of registrations of interest from people wanting to take up community shares so if you want to join them go to www.edinburghsolar.coop/register.

But alongside my pride is recognition of scale. The Solar Co-op provides about 1.38 MW of capacity at present. That is still just a drop in the ocean. Alongside projects like Harlaw Community Hydro and Saughton Park hydro scheme, its value is as much on the public engagement and education side as on the actual numbers.

And there is no one big solution. Sixty years ago, nuclear power was the imagined future. But, along the coast, Torness nuclear power station will shut within a decade, the date being extended to 2030 (from 2023) despite warnings that cracking in the two reactor graphic cores might be a problem within two years. The days of nuclear power, at least in Scotland, are numbered and not before time.

So the future is a more diverse one: a mixture of massive investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy like wind, wave and sun and the expansion of heat networks. In much of Europe heat networks are the norm, usually in the form of district heating where a range of buildings are heated from a single large source rather than going through the inefficiency of individual boilers. The reduction in fuel bills and carbon emissions is enormous. In my own patch, at Fountainbridge, it is technically feasible to have a single district heating system, feeding off the surplus heat of a main sewer pipe, going to a thousand homes, offices and next-door Boroughmuir High School. So too Granton, the Bioquarter, Redford Barracks site: anything of scale built from now on.

The good news, of course, is that there is a jobs bonanza. A report last year estimated that there are at least 16,000 jobs in Edinburgh by accelerating the transformation to a sustainable city. This is more vital than ever for a city which has seen its supposed economic vitality badly exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. The opportunity to develop the skills needed must be seized by the City Region Deal. The capital’s own energy company, Energy for Edinburgh, is waiting in the wings as a way to spearhead an energy revolution.

Sexy? Well, maybe not, but an exciting prospect all the same