Many councils are committed to act in the face of the climate emergency, but responses can be limited by the often perilous state of local government finance.
Relatively few councils have invested in large scale renewable energy generation assets. Many potential council renewable energy schemes remain on the drawing board and don't progress because of financial hurdles.
In Warrington's case, major investments in solar generation have been driven from the finance department. Early experience with local solar projects, putting panels on local homes and a large commercial roof, helped build an appetite for renewable energy investment. Solar assets are seen as a financial opportunity that can help relieve financial pressures on the council rather add to them.
With difficulty finding potential sites for solar farms locally, Warrington looked for opportunities further a field. It now owns solar farms at sites near York and Hull. Each asset is held by a special purpose vehicle, a 100% council owned company. The York Solar farm has capacity of 34.7MWp and the Hull site 25.7MWp solar farm. Both sites are hybrid with integrated battery storage with 27MWh installed at York, and 20MWh at Hull.
Warrington Brough Council has worked with solar farm developer and operator GRIDSERVE to develop and acquire these assets. To de-risk the investment, the solar assets are created and commissioned by GRIDSERVE prior to to transfer of ownership to the council as a working asset. The solar farms include some of the latest technical innovations including bi-facial panels with solar tracking and integrated battery storage. The council has already secured generation capacity in excess of its own power use. The solar farms are currently exceeding expectations for their performance and financial returns.
Local authorities are not experts in developing solar assets. Don’t be scared to ask questions. We have learnt there is no such thing as a daft question.
These projects can take up a lot of internal resource so you need to be aware of the staff resources you are prepared to invest in the project. The more you are involved the more 'ownership' there is for the project.
Bring in external advisors where necessary, especially Technical Advisers and specialist legal advice. We use APSE Energy for technical support. The legal aspects for these projects are complex and huge. It’s highly unlikely a Local Authority internal legal team will have the relevant expertise. In Warrington we do a lot of the Financial due diligence in house, mainly as a result of doing solar projects over a long period. Consider external financial advice if you don’t feel comfortable doing it in house. We still use external financial expertise for things like tax advice and energy market financial projections.
You’ll likely be working with companies that may not have worked with public sector organisations too. There will be a lot of learning about how each party operates - be patient.
For a local council, bringing councillors along on the journey is also critical. In Warrington, councillors have been involved closely with the green agenda for a long time before we looked at investing solar farms. At each stage of our journey we worked closely with councillors, whether it was domestic solar roof installations, a commercial solar roof installation or large complex solar farms. The decision to invest in solar farms seemed like a natural progression for the council. It was the logical next step on our 8-year long green energy journey.
Think about where you are at on your green energy journey. Is there an opportunity to build a solar farm on your own land? Are neighbouring authorities interested in developing a project together? Are there solar farm developers with schemes coming forward where there is an investment opportunity?