Close article 30th November 2016

In the Spotlight: Crowdfunding Solar Power, M&S Energy

How is a company that is in the business of selling bras and knickers looking to its customers to help meet renewable energy commitments? Zoë Arden speaks to Lydia Hopton, Property Plan A Project Manager at M&S, to find out.

Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash.

ZA: How did the solar scheme come about? Why did M&S opt for crowdfunding?

LH: In 2014 we completed solar panels on Castle Donington distribution centre. It is a massive project – generating over 5,000 MWh of electricity per year, the equivalent amount of energy to power 1,190 houses – and the single largest roof installation in the UK. There was a positive business case and it secures a proportion of our supply off grid. The engineering team started to look at how we could replicate the benefit of Castle Donington across the estate.

We went out to tender to seek funding for a 25 store roll-out. On commercial and social value, the joint Joju and community group Energy4All proposition won. It began more detailed store assessments, assessing how big the arrays could be. Around this time, the UK government started to make rumblings about feed-in tariff reductions. We knew we were up against it but didn’t realise how quickly we’d need to get the scheme through. We realised our scope was more limited due to installation complications, such as structural capacity in the roof so we ended up with a smaller list and have delivered to eight stores.

How does this fit with M&S’s renewable energy targets?

We have two commitments to renewable energy: 1. Ensure electricity purchased for M&S operated stores and offices in the UK and ROI is from renewable sources, integrating small-scale generation opportunities where possible. 2. Ensure 50% of the electricity used in our building operations comes from small- scale renewable sources by 2020. To meet these, we need more on-site renewables. The scheme is small in terms of our overall electricity usage, but every kWh of renewable electricity helps.

What are the challenges for a corporate working with a community energy cooperative? Working with the community group was new – they have different experiences and working requirements. But now we have a framework that we can work with again and they can use to work with other commercial occupiers or property owners.

We made space available to a community group – they have will, passion and money but have limited space to deploy their investments whether this is solar PV, hydro power, wind power. We have given over our roof space and demonstrated to all other commercial occupiers that it is possible; so many other roofs out there are under-utilised.

There is a technical challenge, it is hard to install solar panels on a working commercial property, but careful planning helps and meant this wasn’t a problem for us.

How has the UK Government’s cuts in renewable incentives affected the scheme?

Dramatically reduced feed in tariffs limited our plans in 2016. We’ve managed to get this across the line but don’t have any further installations planned this year. However, we’re confident that as the panels become lighter and cheaper, which we’re seeing happen in the market now, further installations will become viable.

What role, if any, do you think the scheme plays in engaging customers on Plan A or more generally on transition to greener economy?

We marketed the opportunity in the stores where the installations took place, online and in various publications. We wanted to make a link between M&S energy, who only offer a renewable tariff, and this offer – that worked. We know M&S energy customers have invested. Its opened up the conversation, it’s really tangible.

The scheme is targeting a 5% return for investors. Each year, after the third year, community grant giving funds will come out and provide seed funding for other projects.

It has engaged a lot of people internally too and involved a big stakeholder engagement process, working with corporate governance, property, legal. We need to see more projects of this kind that have a tri-benefit (environmental, social and economic) its harder to engage people if it’s just environmental or social value.

Originally posted on SustainAbility’s Radar Magazine – Issue 12.

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