Revisiting Southill Solar; Q&A with Tim Crisp on how the site has bloomed

Situated on the edge of the Cotswolds is Southill Solar Farm. Standing at 4.5MWp, it generates enough electricity to power the equivalent of the homes in Charlbury, Finstock and Fawler which flank its boundary.

In 2016, driven by the vision of local residents Tim Crisp and Liz Reason, nearly 400 members of the community came together to raise £1.1m, with private investment making up what was required to build the farm. The aim was to provide payback for the investors, reinvestment into local community projects, and of course divestment from grid oil and gas to renewable power.

Two years since completing the site, we revisit the solar farm to learn about the views of the  community and the benefits of local investment, both financially and for skylarks.

We talk to Tim at Southill Community Energy (SCE).

What is the local perception of renewable energy and solar? Has this changed since Southill Solar Farm was installed in 2016?

We always got the impression that the vast majority of the community were in support of renewable energy and the Southill Solar project, perhaps 75-80%.

I suspect the numbers in support have only increased since 2016 – familiarity with the installation, growing concern about the climate crisis, visibility of the benefits all being reasons why. These figures more or less mirror broader research showing that solar is supported by 89% of the UK public*.

We’d like to think that this solar project has helped people understand the benefits that solar farms bring to the discussion around the climate crisis and the critical role that renewables can play in reducing our carbon footprint.

The solar farm appears to have had a wider impact too; we’ve had education visits from a lycée in Brittany, Oxford Brooks ECI and the Luther College Ohio.

There is also a great deal of interest in the biodiversity we’ve fostered as well as our beehives and we continue to have volunteer groups to help with landscaping tasks.

Southill Solar Farm is owned by the community and managed by SCE. What is the appetite for similar projects following this one?

I’m certain there’s an appetite for more. I often get asked if we will be doing further share offers to give opportunities for more community ownership. We recently ran a £350k bond offer which was fully subscribed within 2 months.

There is a real sense that people here want to do what they can to help projects like ours succeed. The community were involved from the outset, invited to meetings, to become as actively involved as they wished and were the ones who selected the final design.

Southill Solar Farm

Forecasts estimated an average of £30,000 a year to invest locally. Over two years on, how is the solar farm performing?

It’s been operating at or above business plan levels and surpluses have been generated accordingly.

We’ve already given £68,500 to the Charlbury Community Centre as our commitment to covering the costs of making it a more energy efficient building, and £10k has gone to the Cotswolds Conservation Board as part of our ongoing commitment to their landscape management plans. And we have one more project in the pipeline for a retrofit refurbishment this year.

How has the quality of the land changed from its arable days to now, as a solar farm?

We worked with the consultancy Wychwood Biodiversity to establish a biodiversity management plan, with the express intention of turning a rather tired arable field into a haven for native wildlife.

The approach has been to create a diversity of habitats across the site, including wildflower meadows full of native plants, tussock grassland margins, wild bird seed crops to feed farmland birds through the winter, and dense hedgerows with a variety of fruit bearing plants.

The site has been monitored for biodiversity every year using standardised survey methods. Results show that plant diversity has increased greatly, especially wildflowers. This in turn has caused a significant increase in the number of bumblebees and butterflies seen across the site. Breeding bird numbers remain high, as there is excellent nesting habitat in the scrub and hedges to the margins of the site. 67 species of bird were observed in 2018, including a number of breeding pairs of skylark.

Poppies at Southill Solar farm

Is there a conflict between managing a wildflower meadow for the benefit of wildlife, but not shading the panels? 

Where the site is more open, we’ve sown a wildflower meadow with species such as corncockle and ox eye daisy which are taller species. Under the panels we’ve sown a traditional grazing mix of fine grasses, which shouldn’t grow tall enough to touch the panels.

For landowners considering going solar, what are your overall thoughts?

Southill represents a significantly improved return from the land for the landowner compared with farming (it is grade 3b) and so represents a fantastic diversification opportunity for landowners.

This is despite the fact that we have a unique set up, and over 60% of the land under our lease with the landowner is purely for biodiversity. This is reflected in the rate we pay our landlord for the whole site.

The construction process with Solarcentury went extremely well, as has the O&M. All the biodiversity and landscape management are carried out by our own directly appointed ecological consultant, and he and Solarcentury have been able to work well together to deliver the landscape management plans that were a key part of our vision.

*source: BEIS public attitudes tracker wave 29