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Community Energy Birmingham


Harnessing community-owned solar across the city of Birmingham


Community-owned solar panels can help cities to reach their net zero targets, but knowing which buildings to install panels can be difficult to assess. As part of Project 3D, the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) has been working with Community Energy Birmingham (CEB) and Big Solar Coop (BSC) to use data to support city-wide solar PV projects.


The 3D Data Hub helps cities like Birmingham by providing useful environment related datasets, including some data on solar PV potential. By modelling data on building location, the angle and pitch of the roof, and irradiance levels, these options can be digitally mapped to help local authorities and communities identify the best opportunities for installing solar PV in their area.


CEB and BSC joined forces and applied for funding through Project 3D to develop a strategy for planning solar PV installations. This project is called Solar Node.


Laurie Duncan from CEB explains how this unfolded.


‘The Solar Node project aimed to assist communities in developing solar at scale. This isn’t just a few panels on people’s homes, but panels on local buildings, factories, schools, hospitals, and universities. Not only will this help reduce Birmingham’s emissions, and lower the cost of electricity long term, but as the energy is community-owned it means that any excess energy and profit can be put right back into the community.

Through several key project phases, we ensured we had the data, support and promotion to make this project a success. Firstly, we built a self-referral tool on our website so that building owners could assess the viability of their properties for community-owned PV installations. Through this, we have developed a list of 23 suitable properties with a potential capacity of 1MW. We’re currently progressing with a 30kW solar photovoltaic installation and installation of an electrical vehicle (EV) charging point at one of these sites, a medical centre in Castle Vale. We’ve already raised the money for this installation though Big Solar Coop’s recent share offer.

Additionally, we have skilled up 15 volunteers and interns to use the data available on 3Dhub and developed a guide to using GIS for modelling potential solar sites.


Which data has been the most useful?


The 3D Data Hub provided valuable datasets. In particular, solar potential mapping, grid constraints and conservation area data were influential in creating the self-referral tool. This tool can be used by anyone, from homeowners to local authorities, to explore how viable solar panels would be on particular buildings.


The grant allowed us to step up the capacity of Community Energy Birmingham and employ our first member of staff to focus on mapping tools to find more potential sites for solar PV.


Community solar has been challenging since the end of the Feed-in-Tariff subsidy and this grant has given us the space to explore larger installations which are more financially viable.


What’s been the main impact?


The project has inspired more cohesive work in the fight against climate change in Birmingham. We’ve seen more interest in people wanting to learn about solar PV and whether their building can be part of the solution. It seems like building community energy is something people can get behind. This is proven by the £600k raised through the Big Solar Coop share offer, of which some has been allocated for projects in Birmingham, including our solar installation in Castle Vale.


Solar Node has also strengthened our community. With the worry of energy price increases, we know that renewable energy is a way to help protect ourselves from the rising costs of gas and electricity and that we each have a part to play in reaching net zero. We’ve welcomed a lot of volunteers throughout the project and it’s very encouraging to know we’re working towards the same goal.


Since the start of the project, we’ve identified 23 sites that have a combined potential of 1MW. We’re expecting at least 50% of these sites to proceed to solar installations, which could lead to an annual CO2 saving of 150 tonnes a year. CEB has also made a Geographic Information System (GIS) Recipe book, which supports volunteers to use available data and GIS to map further potential sites. This is the first project of its kind, and we’re incredibly pleased with where we’re at.


What’s next?


Our 3D grant helped us kick-start this amazing project. For it to continue we’re looking for further funding, to find more suitable buildings to host community-owned solar installations.


This project can be repeated in other cities to increase resilience to the climate emergency. The open tools can be used by individuals, community groups and local authorities to determine the best plan of action for a specific area. This can help whole communities feel positive about the future, more connected to where they live and improve their wellbeing.’


Following the success of the Solar Node project, CSE is currently developing a national Open Solar online tool to help people and their communities understand the viability of solar PV on buildings. Contact CSE’s communities team to find out more.

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