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Penny Shepherd MBE is the chair of Orchard Community Energy in Swale and Medway, Kent and is helping to set up Kent Community Energy, a new community energy society for the whole of Kent. Details at www.kentcommunityenergy.org or follow @kent_commenergy.
When I first joined the board of a community energy society in Kent, I was keen to support more renewable energy generation and give fossil-free investment opportunities to ordinary people – but recent events have really brought home to me how community-owned solar farms and other community assets can have a much wider social impact.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we are using additional profits from solar generation to help plug the gap in funding local charitable services for vulnerable people caused by the closure of charity shops, the loss of hiring income from community centres and the cancellation of fundraising events.
Not to mention enabling charity staff to work from home and meeting new needs like an emergency “escape” fund from domestic abuse exacerbated by lock-down.
Small local charities have been hit particularly hard by the crisis. A recent Pro Bono Economics survey found that two-thirds have had to make significant cuts to services due to lost income even though needs have risen.
Having closed its charity shops during the crisis, Emmaus Dover had to furlough its Community Support worker. Our grant has enabled them to restore this service to formerly homeless people for the next six months.
Our grants have come from the profits of a solar farm in North Kent that was built in 2016 and is now being brought into community ownership as a result of the Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE) partnership between social investors Power to Change and Big Society Capital.
I am helping to create Kent Community Energy, a new community energy society that will own the array. It will do a local share issue later this year to take full ownership of the site and will use its profits after paying a return to investors to support environmental and social resilience across Kent for at least the next twenty years.
On the advice of the Kent Community Foundation, we have focused our support on charities known to us. These have included The Canterbury Umbrella Centre, a community hub supporting people with mental health and physical illness, Samphire, which supports migrants to the UK and promotes community cohesion in Dover, and SATEDA, that aims to end domestic abuse.
We have covered the costs of Canterbury Umbrella’s lost revenue from the forced closure of its well-being café and from hiring rooms to other groups, funded IT equipment for Samphire’s staff to work effectively from home and enabled SATEDA to help to those living under lockdown who need to flee a relationship.
As we move into the “new normal”, we aim to use future grants to help our community to achieve greater social and environmental resilience in the face of a longer term climate emergency. Our past experience shows that, for example, funding energy efficient freezers for well-being cafes and LED lights in arts centres and community buildings can help these local hubs be more economically and environmentally resilient, reducing their running costs and carbon footprint at the same time.
More generally, we want to develop more community-owned energy projects across Kent. These might involve further solar generation on economically viable sites like commercial rooftops, other local infrastructure like electric car charging points or services like electric car clubs.