16 Apr 2014

Balcombe: ‘now everyone’s working towards the same goal’

Made famous by a high-profile anti-fracking protest camp last year, the Sussex village of Balcombe is now embarking on a renewable energy project that villagers say is promoting community cohesion.

When energy company Cuadrilla – a pioneer of fracking in the UK – moved in to Balcombe last summer to drill an exploratory well to see if oil could be produced from the site, a noisy protest began against the operation. On Thursday the Green MP Caroline Lucas was found not guilty of obstructing a public highway during those protests.

But the weeks of demonstrations, which at some points were attracting environmentalists from across the country, left the village divided.

Balcombe resident Felix Carmichael told Channel 4 News: “the fracking / anti-fracking campaigns really broke up a quiet little village.”

The last protestors were evicted in November 2013, but tensions were still evident in December, when Kathryn McWhirter, of the Frack Free Balcombe Residents Association, told the BBC: “the village is absolutely divided – we put notices up and seconds later they’re taken down.”

How to restore community spirit?

Some villagers say a project to bring renewable energy is healing those rifts.

The backers of the Repower Balcombe Co-operative hope to supply the equivalent 100 per cent of Balcombe’s electricity demand through community owned and locally generated energy.

A meeting to propose the idea attracted some 50 locals – in a village of 760 homes. Now phase one of the project – to install solar panels that can deliver 250kwh of the target power – is underway.

Site of Balcombe's first solar panels

By the end of May this cowshed should have solar panels installed. Paid for by the Repower Balcombe directors – all volunteers – who have together raised £33,000, they should generate 19.5kwh.

Then the project plans to open a share offer to raise the £300,000 that will be needed to fund the rest of the panels needed to hit the phase one 250kwh target.

To make the project cheaper, the solar panels will be sited on commercial buildings. There has been no shortage of offers to host the project, with late-stage discussions ongoing for a number of other sites.

A farmer agreeing to host a solar panel will receive the power it generates at a discount below the best energy price on offer from a regular supplier for the entirety of the 20 year lease. Project supporters say this element of fixed costs is attractive to farmers who are currently facing severe economic pressures.

Community support

Phase two of the project is slated to be funded and installed over the next three years – an apparently ambitious timescale as it involves raising some £2.5m to producing the remaining 90 per cent of Balcombe’s electricity needs. But directors believe the projection of five per cent returns over 20 years will prove attractive.

The project aims to reduce local electricity demands as well as inspiring other villages to follow its example.

But it also hopes to unite the local community in support of its goals.

As Repower Finance Director Felix Carmichael (day job: airline pilot) put it to Channel 4 News: “Now everyone’s working towards the same goal.”

Any profits will go into a community benefit fund to finance energy saving in local homes and community buildings.

Another resident, who did not wish to be named but is not involved in running the project, told Channel 4 News “it’s a wonderful idea.”

In January it was revealed that policing last summer’s protests had cost Sussex Police almost £4m. In the same month, Cuadrilla said that there would be no need to frack in Balcombe as the rocks at its site contain natural fractures.