Finding a site

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Depending on the type of project you are taking forward, you may require a site for a renewable energy installation, growing food, or to provide a retail outlet or distribution centre. Tapping into local knowledge within your group, talking to members of the community and utilising word of mouth can all help you to identify potential sites - you may be surprised to find that other people have been considering sites for a similar project! Studying maps and exploring the local area can also reveal possible sites, and you can find out who owns sites identified from the Land Registry. Scoping exercises may aid this process.

The characteristics of the site you choose will influence the level of awareness of your project and the scope for people to get involved. Points to consider include:

Accessibility. How accessible your site is by public transport, on foot, by bike or for those with limited mobility will affect who and how many people are able to visit the site in person. This will be of most significance to projects which involve selling a product or service onsite, or will be seeking volunteers to help there. Accessibility is also relevant if your project will involve large scale construction, such as for wind energy development – a site is no good if the parts won’t be able to get there! It can be worth getting advice on this from an access expert, as the need to create new access routes can add significant costs onto the project or make it infeasible.

Passing trade. Sites which a range of people pass regularly will offer more opportunities to engage people, meaning you won’t have to go out of your way quite so much to track down potential customers or supporters. Such sites may be located on or near a busy high street, main road or other local hubs of activity. For projects which involve selling a product or service on site, this is a particular benefit, as it means you are likely to receive greater passing trade and have more customers right on your doorstep, enhancing your economic viability. On the other hand, a prominent position can throw up difficulties for projects which are seeking planning permission – see the ‘feasibility’ points below.

Feasibility. A site needs to be feasible economically, technically and in terms of planning requirements. Many potential sites will be ruled out on financial grounds alone, and rent is likely to be a significant cost which you will have to budget for. If you can arrange to share premises with another organisation or can find a sympathetic landlord who supports the social objectives of your project, you may be able to get a better deal (see the ‘landlord’ points below). To be technically viable, for example to host a particular renewable energy technology, the site will need to have a suitable location, orientation and access to natural resources and grid connection. Surveys and tests may be necessary to assess this. When it comes to planning requirements, relevant factors to consider include proximity to residential areas and the likely impact in terms of noise, landscape and wildlife.

Suitable landlord. Finding a landlord who is on board with the project is crucial. You may be able to find a suitable landlord through word of mouth, community connections, advertising or approaching potential landlords directly. For large scale projects, such as wind energy development, you may have to approach several different landlords if more than one person’s land will be involved, for example to provide access for installation or maintenance. For more information on these considerations, see the Community-led Wind Power action pack.

Case Studies
Country: UK

Brighton Energy Co-operative found attracting potential landlords the hardest part of delivering their community-owned solar PV project. To find a site, they drew up a target list of buildings they thought would have large, good-quality roofs. Using their local contacts and the mailing list, they also solicited from the public: did anyone know any roofs? At the same time they set to work on writing the lease agreement that would be signed between Brighton Energy Co-operative and the sites. This was a significant piece of work: a fifty-page legal document that would form the basis of the relationship between the two parties for twenty years. The group heard that a London solicitors – Reed Smith – allocated a percentage of their profits to pro bono work, and were successful in applying for their assistance. After intensive questioning of the team, Reed Smith wrote the lease agreement, framing their needs within legal terminology. They then began discussions with various organisations. It became increasingly obvious, however, that some organisations are better at making decisions than others. Those organisations with a community-minded focus proved the most amenable, but in total they contacted more than fifty building-owners. After eight months three had signed the lease, representing a conversion rate of one in every seventeen prospects. The three organisations included two churches and a local port. St George's Church in Kemptown was the first: the local vicar, Father Andrew, understood the pressing need for renewable energy, and appreciated the idea of involving the community in its rollout. The second – City Coast Church in Portslade – felt a similar way. Finally, Shoreham Port liked the idea too. As a trust Port, Shoreham has a responsibility that goes beyond fiduciary – it is also required to engage and benefit the local community when carrying out its activities.

Source: Community-Led Photovoltaic Initiatives action pack

Country: Netherlands

The football club of Wolfaartsdijk, a village in the province of Zeeland, developed a master plan to make the club energy self-sufficient and climate neutral by 2020. As part of the plan, the club installed 54 PV panels and a revolutionary ‘4D boarding’ system. The 4D boarding is installed along the playing field edge and has rotating panels. During the football matches the boarding displays commercial messages from the sponsors who funded the PV panels. After the match the panels transform into PV panels which face towards the sun. The prominent positioning of the PV panels helps to raise awareness about sustainable energy amongst the club's members and supporters and has stimulated many to install PV panels on the roofs of their own homes.

Country: UK

Energy Alton chose to install solar PV on their local town library. This involved 12 months of negotiation with Hampshire County Council, Yes Energy Solutions (the provider of the solar PV system) and the planning authorities. Apart from an ideal location to maximise the performance of the solar PV, the library was chosen because it is an educational hub, ideally placed to demonstrate the benefits of locally produced renewable energy. Energy Alton lobbied county council members and staff to support the idea of solar panels on the modern library building. Support was given for them to talk directly to estates staff to negotiate a ‘roof agreement’. This was done over 3 months. Energy Alton realised there were drawbacks to owning the solar panels themselves, so they changed tack and decided to gift the panels to the council to reduce a number of operational risks. They negotiated and signed a Memorandum of Agreement that tied Hampshire County Council and Energy Alton together for 15 years. As a direct result, 40 solar panels were installed on the town library which went ‘live’ in October 2013. Under the agreement the parties share the income from the payments under the Feed in Tariff for 15 years and Hampshire Country Council gets free electricity for over 25 years.

Country: UK

Low Carbon West Oxford has installed solar PV projects on a range of buildings in order to spread the benefit across the community and to develop a broader experience that could be shared with other communities. The ‘not for profit’ sector is covered by The King’s Centre roofs; the commercial sector is covered by the Aldi roof; the social rented sector is covered by Oxford City Council housing; and the education sector is covered by Matthew Arnold School.

Source: Low Carbon West Oxford and West Oxford Community Renewables (2010), Low Carbon Living: Power to make it possible