When we think about energy, we typically think about a sector defined by scale — power plants with cooling towers like skyscrapers, transmission lines running in parallel past the horizon, billion-dollar corporations unaccountable to any government, an industry whose footprint is so massive it endangers the Earth itself.

So, how do some pitched roofs, solar panels, and a team of a few dozen mostly volunteers, collectively known as Bath & West Community Energy, stack up? Surprisingly well. A non-profit energy cooperative based in Bath, England, BWCE shows the vast potential of grassroots green energy. The collective raises money from members of the local community and uses it to install solar projects on local buildings. Then it uses the revenues it earns from selling this energy back to the grid to return everyone’s money –– plus interest. It’s a prime example of how communities can take the transition to renewable electricity into their own hands, building a model that’s sustainable in terms of both energy and economics.

Since its founding a decade ago, BWCE has built 20 solar projects in fields and on the roofs of local buildings — mostly schools and community centers — that generate 12.35 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to power 4,300 homes. The projects are installed free-of-charge to the property owners, who can then buy the electricity straight from the panels at a cost 10 percent cheaper than that from the grid. The money BWCE gets from selling the electricity recuperates construction costs before paying a modest return back to the groups’ shareholders, who can invest as little as £100 (USD$137) to earn a spot on the one-member-one-vote directing committee. Any revenues left over are passed on to the organization’s Community Fund, which, to date, has donated upwards of £200,000 (about USD$270,000) to other local sustainability initiatives. 

A school in Bath. Photo courtesy BWCE

Just as the city of Bath was founded in the first century AD to take advantage of the area’s hot springs, BWCE was forged from a unique opportunity to make use of a natural resource. In April 2010, the United Kingdom implemented a “feed-in tariff,” a subsidy that, for the first time, effectively paid people to produce and “feed in” renewable energy to the grid. The subsidy “generated a community business model that enabled us to generate income from financing and building renewables… Without that, it would have been pretty impossible to do,” says Pete Capener, managing director and cofounder of BWCE. 

Capener, who has spent the last 30 years working in the renewable energy sector — and just as long living in Bath — cofounded Bath Community Energy alongside other members of Transition Bath and Transition Corsham, two local climate groups, in May 2010. That September, BWCE secured initial seed funding, and in October the group completed its first set of rooftop solar systems on schools in Bath & North East Somerset and West Wiltshire. 

The feed-in tariff made producing local renewable energy financially feasible. But, just as it created an opportunity for BWCE, it also presented the group with a challenge: the subsidy was designed to be a temporary kick-start for green energy projects and would phase out over time. As it disappeared, BWCE’s small-scale projects would become less financially sustainable. Since energy production is an archetypal example of a sector that exhibits economies of scale –– meaning that production gets more efficient, and cheaper, the more energy you produce –– the only way to prevent BWCE from becoming insolvent was to scale up. “The focus was on building, building, building projects and trying to get them in as quick as possible before the feed-in tariff went down again,” says Capener.

BWCE has built 20 solar projects that generate enough electricity to power 4,300 homes. Credit: Pedro Szekely / Flickr

And so they built, completing 12 projects by 2013, generating the energy equivalent of 130 households. By 2015, BWCE’s generation increased sixteen-fold to 7.1 MW, meeting the demand of 2,150 homes. They nearly doubled their capacity the year after, generating 12.35 MW in 2016, the equivalent of roughly 4,000 homes. As of March 2021, they’ve built five ground-mounted solar farms, and rooftop projects on 11 schools and four community buildings. (And, because variety is the spice of life, they also built a hydroelectric water wheel.)

BWCE’s rapid expansion helped them get ahead of the decline of the feed-in tariff, which ended in 2019. But all that growth came at a cost. “For the first three or four years, we had to operate very much like any project developer, albeit a not-for-profit developer… but it meant that some of the community connections that we started off with when we first set up eroded a bit over time,” says Capener. In the last few years, BWCE has made a concerted effort to deepen its roots in the community it formed to benefit.

It’s done this through its Community Fund, which, since 2013, has distributed grants to 71 local sustainability initiatives, supporting everything from renewables installations to sustainable farms, bike workshops and repair cafes. This year, they distributed £36,000 to 12 organizations. Scale has also allowed them to become more inclusive in their governance structure, lowering the minimum investment from £500 to its current £100. And because the organization is run as a cooperative, shareholders who have invested £100 have as much of a say as those who have invested £100,000. 

But community isn’t only about money. “There have been a lot more people coming in, saying ‘what can we do?’” says Nick Bird, BWCE’s communications and community outreach coordinator. Bird, who joined the organization in 2018 as its second paid employee — there are now seven — has helped expand BWCE’s community beyond shareholders by growing its volunteer Supporters Network. Last year, BWCE developed a “Roof Spotter’s Guide,” a handbook to help volunteers scout for roofs in their community suitable for solar installation, and has hosted educational webinars to keep people and groups engaged during the UK’s lockdowns.

In spite of the world’s current tumult, BWCE — which beat its 2020 generation target by five percent and plans to double capacity by 2022 — has plenty of reason to be optimistic. The last decade has been nothing short of a technological revolution for solar, with the price per megawatt-hour falling by 89 percent, from $359 to $40. “There are technological advances happening around solar all the time,” says Capener, who is especially anticipating the development of a film that can be applied to old panels to make them more efficient, more sustainable tech that relies less on rare Earth metals, and better battery storage technology. The organization is also in the process of securing a long-term power purchasing agreement, which would set the stage for a new era of expansion. 

Beyond the technology, Bird sees greater potential in BWCE becoming a central node in a reciprocal sustainability network. “We can bring people together… but it’s not just about local people helping us, but also demonstrating that we are part of your community too — so how can we help you? It’s all about the community, and it’s about clean energy, owned on behalf of the community, for your benefit.” To Capener, these relationships help ensure the success of a green transition, as “renewables that generate local benefit stand a greater chance of building local support,” as well as advance BWCE’s mission of connecting people to power — both democratic and electric.

And personally, Bird and Capener — who worked from home even before the pandemic — can’t wait to get back into their community, to be able to host in-person meetings and spend time working in cafes around Bath, looking out at their beloved 2,000-year-old city, continuing the work of securing its future for another millennium or two.