Starting up BEC: “It struck me… if we want to get this done – we have got to do it”

Sabine Hielscher writes: Over the next few months the CISE team will join BEC’s team meetings and talk with them about their journey to learn more about the cooperative. We will share some of our experiences on this blog:

The development of Brighton Energy Co-op (BEC) was initiated as a response to the failed Copenhagen Climate Change negotiations in December 2009. Gathering outside the conference centre with the slogan to ‘act, do something’ but soon after realising that ‘nothing at all’ had happened to act on climate change, Will realised that instead of relying on someone else to act he had to do it himself. For Will ‘a kind of DIY mentality’ emerged in the aftermaths of the conference. Although a place where the climate change negotiation had failed, Denmark turned out to be a great source of inspiration. On the way to visit a Vestas manufacturing plant (a Danish wind turbine manufacturer), Will passed numerous villages with their own wind turbine and as he later found out 20% of them were community-owned.

The idea to set up a community solar project was not the first business idea that Will developed after his return from Denmark. He first put his mind to learning ‘how to build your own wind turbine’ by enrolling on a course run by the Centre for Alternative Energy in Wales. The idea was to take this knowledge to numerous communities. However, the business concept was not financially viable and was therefore soon after dismissed. A key requirement for any renewable project that Will wanted to develop was for it be sustainable over time and able to financially support itself without having to rely on grants. Looking back Will particularly feels that the experience of ‘building your own wind turbine’ (in addition to buying a GCSE physics book) has helped him to ‘demystify’ renewable technologies, making it less ‘intimidating’ and therefore providing him with the confidence to continue his search for a viable renewable project idea.

The discovery of the UK Government’s planned launch of the Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) nourished the notion of setting up a community owned solar project in Brighton and Hove. Will started to call a few solar installers and conducted research into ‘how to start up your own co-op’. The installer provided him with two financial models, outlining a 25 years financial projection of solar installations and various factors that might impact on the models. First Will, and later on with huge inputs from Danni, used these spreadsheets as a basis to develop their current more ‘complex’ financial model. The launch of the FiTs in April 2010 proved to Will that his concept of an energy co-op could actually become real. He just needed to tell other people about his idea. BEC’s first public meeting was held in June 2010.

Before the meeting Will had written several press releases, contacted people through e-mail lists, created a name for the co-op, a preliminary business plan and a website. It was essential for him to present not only an idea but rather a more fully developed concept of BEC. Seventy people turned up to the public meeting in the Phoenix Community Centre, which demonstrated to Will an overall ‘appeal’ for the concept. People started to contact Will, wanting to be part of BEC’s development but most of these contacts disappeared after only a short while. Will was keen to find people that ‘can do stuff and not just say that they can do stuff’. This is how he met Danni and Damian.

Previously, Damian was a Director of a small software company and gained fourteen years of experience in corporate project management. He recently completed a Masters course at the Forum for the Future. Damian met up with Will at the ‘Mad Hatter’ in Brighton and has been part of BEC ever since.

Danni is a chartered accountant, having worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers for eight years. She is currently running her own accountancy practice. Will and Danni met at a Southern co-op event where she stood up to let people know that she would like to get involved in green projects. A few weeks later they all sat in a local pub in Brighton, discussing their business plan.

From that point onwards the group developed their organisational structure, financial models, etc. topics that will be part of future articles on this blog and as Will put it: ‘things became more difficult’.

After asking Will about what advice he would give to other groups to help them with their start-up phase, he replied that on of key things for him was to get people on his side that supported the concept early on in the process. These were not only people that wanted to be actively involved but rather supported the idea of the project. For BEC these were the first financial investors (although the risks are high) so that the group was able to develop the project in its early stages. For Will it is key to keep these people up-to-date on how the project is progressing through regular meetings, e-mail contacts and newsletters.