Wolverton Community Energy has installed solar panels on buildings around the community. (Photo: Wolverton Community Energy)
After working on community energy projects for several years, Marie Osborne, a resident of Wolverton in Milton Keynes, was feeling frustrated.
A pattern had emerged whereby central government would fund projects for clean or efficient energy, the work would get underway, then the money would suddenly evaporate.
“They had one really successful local programme for hard-to heat homes, then the funding dissipated”, explains Jane Grindey, director and co-founder of Wolverton Community Energy.
“These projects would start and stop and start and stop and all the enthusiasm would disappear.”
Eventually, in 2015, Grindey, Osborne and a group of Wolverton residents decided to flip the script, founding Wolverton Community Energy to provide locals with clean energy for the long-term.
The group is cooperatively owned, with members across the community encouraged to buy shares, and capital funding provided by investors looking to “make a difference”.
From council offices to farms, Wolverton Community Energy has installed solar panels on roofs across the community which generate clean, stable energy for local people and businesses.
There is an upfront cost for the panels, says Grindey, but thereafter the benefits are enormous: green energy, lower costs and no reliance on fickle outside funding or volatile energy markets.
“Huge spikes in gas prices are going to put up the cost of everyone’s electricity, but because we have no relationship with a normal grid, we’re not affected by that”, Grindey explains.
“We know our projects aren’t going to be short-term, meaning we can really think about their future direction.”
So far the group has 18 clients, but most are social enterprises or businesses themselves, meaning “the benefits are multiplied”, says Grindey.
She adds: “Our impact is more than just one person, we’re talking hundreds if you think about all the people using that building, the costs of businesses coming down a little bit – potentially saving jobs.”
The impact of Wolverton Community Energy goes beyond recipients of solar panels too, with half of profits from the panels funneled back into the local economy and half invested in projects helping to alleviate fuel poverty.
“The profits are held locally and the benefits are held locally”, Grindey says.
Thanks to grants from sources such as the Big Issue Invest, the group is also able to branch out from solar panels, running other schemes to improve energy efficiency and costs for local people.
One current project, designed to lower the costs of insulation, shares home surveys across streets where houses are architecturally similar or identical, saving homeowners the £500 cost of having theirs individually assessed.
Wolverton Community Energy also recently installed £20,000 worth of LED lighting at a local school, slashing its electricity bills by around 50 per cent.
Though Grindey says the group isn’t yet in a position to dish out “vast amounts of money” to the community every year, she hopes in time they’ll “get to that point”.
Wolverton is no outlier, with a quiet revolution now taking place across the country.
Hundreds of communities are banding together to generate their own electricity through wind, solar and power, slashing bills and bringing their carbon emissions down in the process.
As the government seeks to move the country towards a low carbon future, such schemes present a solution not just to the climate crisis but to fuel poverty and communities struggling financially.
Cooperative models also have the advantage of bringing communities together in deciding how best to use energy, Grindey explains.
“Everyone who invests is a member of the society, directors are elected and people vote on how we distribute profits. It’s local, democratic decision-making”.
Compared to our current national grid system, Grindey believes community energy schemes present a more attractive and beneficial system for everyone involved, including investors “looking to move away from fossil fuels”.
“The fantastic thing about community energy is it gives you stability for the long term, and those benefits are held locally”, she says.
“We’re not at the whim of somebody else, not reliant on the council or grants, or the wider electricity market. It’s something we should all be doing so much more”.
Wolverton Community Energy has received investment from Big Issue Invest. Download Big Issue Invest’s latest Impact Report here.
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.