Two months into 2016 Swindon Borough Council and Abundance launched the first local authority solar bond in the UK. Now just shy of two months until the end of 2016, we have once again partnered to launch the second: Swindon Chapel Farm Solar.
We spoke to one of the team at Swindon Borough Council about the whole idea of local authority solar, and how it became an opportunity for residents to invest in their local infrastructure. The original vision was rather novel:
“The idea was to have a solar-powered sound barrier along the A419, which was put to all 57 Councillors around 4 years ago as motion for debate. It was quite different from most other things on the table at the time, to say the least! Traffic noise from the A419 has long been an issue for residents living in the area but Highways Agency and Government weren’t going to pay for it, so why not make the barrier pay for itself by combining the barrier with solar panels and sell the electricity?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly the plan drew much interest and was approved “unanimously and by all political parties.”
From solar barriers to 100% renewables
The original idea quickly caught on and by November 2013 the motion that both Common Farm and Chapel Farm are working towards was passed. It called for Swindon Borough Council to ‘lead the development of renewable energy projects that demonstrate clear local economic benefits, and will aim for Swindon to generate low carbon energy to power equivalent to all residential properties by 2020.’
It is incredible just how fast things have moved in three short years and that is thanks to the effort put in by residents, developers, SBC-owned Public Power Solutions and the Council. Once the vision was in place the hunt for suitable sites began.
“The Council went out to local parishes, developers, and residents and invited them to come forward with suggestions for sites they would like to see solar on, or on which they were confident solar could be developed. We ended up with a whole list of sites, which we then went through and categorized by viability and, following that, those that were acceptable and not acceptable to residents. By the end we had 30 on the table.”
That was just the beginning of the journey in teamwork. PPS and SBC knew that to get planning permission for each site individually would take months if not years. The solution was to utilise a piece of legislation from 2004 called a Local Development Order (LDO).
“We took the LDO framework and applied it to clean energy, so that Swindon now has a Low Carbon Local Development Order. What this effectively did was to grant planning permission for a whole host of projects – solar, air source heat pumps and district heating, and electric car charging points – in one go. No red tape and no loss of momentum. It allowed us to turn around to developers straight away and say ‘we’ve a number of projects up for grabs so show us your cards.’”
One of those sites was Swindon Chapel Farm Solar. This will be the first site of the Council’s solar farms that is specifically assigning part of the profits to a specific project – the original sound barrier.
“Residents and the Council have been trying to get that sound barrier built for a long time but there just hasn’t been the funding available. We saw an opportunity in the solar farms.”
It isn’t just the sound barrier that residents can look forward to. Just as with Common Farm, people living nearby have the opportunity to invest in their local energy supply.
“We could not have foreseen that Common Farm would sell out a month ahead of schedule. For people that didn’t invest last time to have seen how we can work together with all the parties involved, including Abundance, and get the farm built and generating electricity right on schedule surely counts for something. Most people will either be investors themselves or know somebody who is, so they have that reference point of the positive experience the first time around.”
Another first: the Swindon ISA
One more exciting element of the Chapel Farm project is that it is the first project on Abundance that investors will be able to hold in our new Innovative Finance ISA. In exactly the same way as Stocks & Shares and Cash ISAs, any returns you earn are tax free. The Council’s spokesperson can see the potential for local ISAs.
“Around 13 million adult ISAs were subscribed to last year, which is a significant proportion of the UK population. Even if not everybody opens one each year, almost everybody has heard of them. This is what makes the Abundance ISA and the launch of Chapel Farm particularly special. People have the confidence of seeing the first project work and now the added confidence of being able to put their local investment into an ISA and earn a tax free return from it. It’s interesting to virtually everybody.”
That’s certainly what we here at Abundance and the Council are hoping! The Abundance ISA and Swindon Chapel Farm Solar are now open for investment.
For more information on holding your Abundance investments in an ISA and having all your returns tax free, click here.
For more information on Swindon Chapel Farm Solar, including the investment calculator, click here.
Part or all of your original capital may be at risk and any return on your loan or investment depends on the success of the project. Investments tend to be long term and may not be readily realisable. Estimated rates of return are variable and estimates are no guarantee of actual return. Consider all risks before investing.