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Andreas Demmelbauer, Solar Panel

The Sunshine of St John's community generation project

St John’s Sunshine (SJS) is a project to install solar PV panels on the roof of St John the Evangelist church in Old Trafford to generate electricity for the adjacent St John’s Centre. In doing so, it is a project that aims to bring together church, local community and energy generation.

SJS is organised as a cooperative – specifically as an Industrial and Provident Society – for community benefit. Its five aims are to contribute to the reduction of carbon footprint in Old Trafford through the installation of solar panels and other projects; to fund ‘sunshine grants’ for Old Trafford community projects from the income from energy generated by the solar panels; to offer shares in the solar panels and membership of SJS; to enable participation in SJS; and to make Old Trafford a more sustainable place through involving more people in working together.

The first stage of the project involved installing 18 solar panels in February 2012 generating 3.75kW of power and producing over 3,000kWh of energy with a second stage with a 5.8kW array planned for late 2012. The energy produced is used by St John’s Centre and SJS collects a generation payment for surplus energy through the UK government’s Feed-in-Tariff (FiT). The surplus revenue generated is used to fund a series of grants to local projects – Sunshine Grants.

To fund the first stage an estimated £15,000 was required. The initial funding was generated through a combination of local providers including St John’s Centre, St John’s Church and local people, including founder members who made contributions as ‘no interest’ private loans.  Additionally these private start-up contributions were added to through the purchase of £5,000 worth of SJS shares by Co-operative Community Finance (CCF).

An important component of SJS’s mode of operation is the FiT. In terms of SJS, it collects the generation payment and the St John’s Centre uses the energy generated. As part of this arrangement St John’s Centre, from their energy savings, makes a payment to St John’s Church for ‘leasing’ of the roof space and towards the church’s buildings insurance. Surplus revenue generated is used to fund a series of grants to local projects through Sunshine Grants.

SJS is organised as a cooperative – specifically as an Industrial and Provident Society – for community benefit. Investment is from a range of community members – both church goers and non-church goers – who, regardless of level of investment operate on the basis of one member one vote.

An Alternative?

There is a long and specific history to the development of SJS. Following the Moss Side riots in the early 1980s, the St John’s Centre was reinvented as a thriving hub for community activities to build community cohesion. Within this context, the SJS project sought to: (a) build community participation; (b) to create new circuits of localised capital that operate in productive ways for the local community; (c) in a way that is democratically organised, controlled and accountable.

A significant part of the vision of SJS was informed by the view that ecological questions are a matter of social justice and that this should not be seen as an abstract issue. Through practical projects the opportunities to in a small way reduce carbon footprint through local engagement can be demonstrated. In particular this underpins a form of localism of people taking re-ownership of their own services. Where organising a form of local action is a counter to the closing down of local amenities and services or the perceived decline of amenities and services.

SJS developed out of a serendipitous meeting in Spring 2011 between the vicar of St John’s Church, Reverend John Hughes and local activist and co-founder of the Sustainable Change Cooperative Fiona Nicholls. The idea that developed from this initial meeting was of developing an alternative energy scheme, through the installation of solar PV panels on St John’s Church that would operate as a not-for-profit cooperative. This plan by these two directors was developed with two further directors, Pete Abel and Gavin Wood.

Key interests involved in SJS are: the Directors, Cooperative members, St John’s Centre, St John’s Church, Co-operative Community Finance (CCF) and the UK government FiT. The membership goes beyond the church so that the organising principle is not shared faith but shared values and community benefit. SJS, by October 2012, had 30 members.

SJS challenges dominant modes of thinking about what retrofit is. It questions the premise of new forms of energy generation having to be produced at large scale and through market organisation. Initiatives like SJS expand our understanding of what we mean by retrofit and remaking the material fabric of the city.

More specifically, SJS demonstrates: the importance to the development of these kinds of projects of a pre-existing community context through St John’s Centre; it also highlights the centrality of leadership in generating alternative visions of this kind and building the networks to achieve them; it demonstrates experimentation with a co-operative form of organisation; and re-thinks narrow technical and techno-economic visions of the future of the material fabric of the city to bring back in local shared values.

There are also challenges and limitations of the SJS approach, not least the likely limits to the replicability of the SJS approach. This is particularly so given decisions at national level in terms of the level at which Feed-in-Tariff payments are made, which could change the whole premise of initiatives such as SJS.

Yet, SJS and its vision goes right to the heart of contemporary debates: about the role of local communities, particularly in conditions of austerity, whether the aim should be to go for growth or sustainability.



This article has been written using publically available sources and an interview with Rev John Hughes and Fiona Nicholls.

This article is published here as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform’s aspiration to raise the visibility of different community innovations, grassroots projects and activities in the city-region.

It also draws on SURF's involvement in the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council grant, 'Retrofit 2050' and contributes to understanding of the Remaking of the Material Fabric of the City.

Find out here about the background, purpose and content of ‘The Alternative?’ series of articles on Platform.


Main image from Flickr user Andreas Demmelbauer published under a Creative Commons licence.