Southill Solar lies on 44 acres of land owned by the Cornbury estate, situated along the railway line between Charlbury and Fawler. This land is located in a truly beautiful area of the Cotswold countryside with 18 acres used for the solar farm and 26 acres reserved for planting and biodiversity plans. At the heart of the plans for Southill Solar was the need to create an attractive site that enhances biodiversity – doing well for local plants and wildlife.
Southill Solar was initially proposed by a local community sustainability group, Sustainable Charlbury. Community support was sought and a team of enthusiasts and experts from within the community came together to help take the project forward. Once the necessary consents were in place Sustainable Charlbury established Southill Community Energy, a community benefit society, which then developed the project through to its operation. Southill Solar was funded by community investment via a share offer and ethical private funding from banks and other organisations.
Three public meetings were held along with a survey to gather and understand the feelings and attitudes of the local community to our proposition. 75% of support for the project consistently came from the community (from those that expressed a view). The community support, particularly for our Bring Your Brolly Day, was a key factor in helping convince the planners of the merits of our community solar farm. Our first planning application was rejected, whilst at the same time we received the good news of our grid connection offer. To raise the finance to secure our grid connection (through payment of a deposit) on the back of a planning refusal was particularly challenging. We were given significant help by SSEN and we negotiated a reduced deposit that our community backers were prepared to finance. Our Bring Your Brolly Day event won the Landscape Institute award for Local planning and was a cornerstone of our resubmitted planning application which went on to gain support of the planning committee.
After gaining planning consents, discussions were able to be taken forward with SSEN about the connection offer. It was fortunate to be sited right next to an 11kV substation and once SSEN confirmed that capacity had become available on the 11kV network the offer was novated from the original connection into the 33kV overhead. This had the significant advantage of being a cheaper connection and opening up the possibility of potential sleeving arrangements for local supply in the future. During 2016 Southill Community Energy had to raise construction finance; £1.95m was raised as equity, including £1.1m through a community share offer. This still left a shortfall of £2.5m and in order to satisfy the bank, SSEN agreed to further novate the connection offer into the name of the SPV that was set up by SCE.
It was fortunate being able to draw upon the support and expertise of a solar farm construction company, who helped advise on a possible site design. We also worked very closely with a local landscape architecture firm during the pre-development phase taking the draft technical drawings of the solar farm and designing an overall site layout. Our first planning application was rejected due to visual impact and our landscape architect was instrumental in changing minds with the award-winning Bring Your Brolly Day community event that helped improve the layout and gain the required consent.
Any profits from Southill Solar are being invested back into the local area for other low-carbon initiatives through the community benefit society. Our first commitment is to supply £100,000 to the new Charlbury Community Centre towards the specification costs of making it a low energy building. We are also providing 25% of our surpluses to the Cotswold Conservation Board to go towards their landscape management plans.
The site has a generation capacity of 4.5MWp and able to generate enough electricity to supply the equivalent of all the homes in Charlbury, Finstock and Fawler – about 1,100 home Revenues come from the Power Purchase Agreement with Coop Energy and from the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme. Under the RO scheme, UK power suppliers must get a proportion of their electricity from renewable sources. We were one of the last solar farms to be able to qualify for RO – the UK government closed the scheme at the end of March 2017.