Tea, coffee, cake and energy advice. Over 1,300 operational solar panels. Access to energy saving gizmos, insulation and grants. Put simply, this is how South East London Community Energy (SELCE) co-op makes a difference to people and the planet. But there’s so much more to their work than that…
“I’ve been an environmental activist for as long as I remember and when I heard about community energy, I saw a way of doing something practical. In order to tackle climate change, we need renewable energy. And rather than being the person that urges others to take action to provide it, I saw a way to take action myself,” says Giovanna Speciale.
So she did – as one of the founder members of SELCE, which was formed in 2014 with other residents from the boroughs of Lewisham and Greenwich in South East London.
The co-op now owns seven solar arrays (groups of panels and the additional equipment that convert the sun’s energy into electricity) situated on seven schools across South East London. The schools buy the energy from SELCE, saving money and saving the planet. “These sites produce 290,000kWh of clean green solar electricity and avoid emitting 101952.4kg of carbon emissions each year,” smiles Giovanna.
The investors who’ve funded the purchase of the arrays via community shares receive a small return on investment, as well as participating in the transition to renewable energy in South East London. So everyone’s happy.
In 2016, SELCE got the chance to spread some of that happiness – and their expertise – to a neighbouring London energy co-op. When Lambeth based Sustainable Energy 24 (SE24) applied to a peer mentor scheme from The Hive, delivered by Co-operatives UK in partnership with The Co-operative Bank, for help with a new solar energy project, they were partnered with SELCE.
For Giovanna and her co-op colleagues, it was a valuable experience. “Mentoring SE24 proved to be an extremely interesting and rewarding two-way learning process. We are two neighbouring energy co-ops who have formed a long-term alliance and we continue to work together to share insights and learning.”
But SELCE’s work isn’t just about solar panels and community shares, as Giovanna explains:
“We held a public meeting at the outset and people said many local residents struggle to pay fuel bills. So we’ve also developed several programmes of work to give people advice and access to insulation, energy saving devices and grants.”
Via a mixture of grant funding and using a social enterprise model, SELCE undertakes a variety of activities to help local residents. These include energy cafes where people can seek advice.
“They can sit down and talk to us about their bills, and we can help them find a cheaper energy supplier, look at how they’re using energy, and give advice on ways to save it. We work with children's centres in Greenwich. We visit parents who are struggling. Children under five living in cold homes are likely to suffer respiratory problems for the rest of their lives. So we give advice and fit energy saving devices. Homes that aren’t heated properly are mouldy homes, so we also advise people how to reduce mould and damp and get ventilation.”
And SELCE’s tireless work doesn’t stop there.
“We help get people off pre-payment meters and onto credit meters. We help people re-negotiate energy debt or apply to a trust fund for debt relief. And we’re currently working with the local authority and the Retrofit Work co-op to help low income households access grant funding to insulate homes with loft and cavity wall insulation or replace old, inefficient boilers.
“We even go door knocking once we’ve identified cold, ‘energy-leaking’ homes, to let people know they can get grant funding to help make their homes warmer and more energy efficient.”
It’s valuable work that makes a massive difference to the households South East London Community Energy helps every day. And to Giovanna too: “I don’t earn much but I’m doing work that feels meaningful and there’s a huge richness in that – and being able to work in co-operative, person-centred way too. I wouldn’t want to work in any other way.”