Get on with Photo Voltaic

St John’s Church in Cutcombe lies in the highest parish on Exmoor. It is a small 12th Century 2 Star listed Church serving a parish of under 500. Following a major review the church has had to embark on a major restoration programme lasting over 10 years. These demands drew down reserves as well as tapping the amount of funding which could be raised locally. Research began in March 2008 to examine how best to reduce running costs, if possible to produce a source of income to help fund future maintenance, and set an example of the church’s responsibility to the environment.

In considering the various options for micro generation of power: ground and air source heat pumps together with solar power heating panels only produce heat. The options quickly narrowed to Photo Voltaic panels which could also benefit from the southerly facing slopes of the church roofs.

At that time we were meeting the challenge of getting a firm application ready and submitted in time to meet the Government’s scheme to provide a grant of up to 50 per cent by the deadline of June 2009. Planning approval would be needed from 3 authorities: the Exmoor National Park, the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and English Heritage which had not dealt with this type of structural adjustment previously. We just made the deadline and were successful in obtaining a grant of 8,930 pounds.

A second headache was the Government’s insistence that only its approved fitters could be used and in our case there were only 3 in the whole of England. In order to obtain the grant the energy produced had to meet minimum criteria. In our case the two practical limits were the size of available matched funding and the dimensions of the non visible roof area. This enabled us to identify that the capacity required would be of the order of 3.5kWp. We invited tender responses from all 3 authorised fitters and, of the two responses, the lowest was for 17,860 pounds with an indicative output of 2890kWhpa.

The business case was calculated on an annual electricity usage of 1678 units which, given the indicative production, should leave about 1000 units available to feed back into the grid. At that stage we were hoping to benefit from the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROC) scheme which applied prior to the more recent introduction of FITS which we then assumed would be granted. But we fell in the middle of two schemes and there was a transition dispute as to whether or not we would have to pay back the grant in order to get the benefit of FITs. This dispute was not settled until earlier this year, luckily to our benefit.

Such projects never run according to the best laid plans. As example – first our contractor insisted on a roof survey by a structural engineer who charged a further 1000 pounds and his recommendation of supporting ties to the beams a further 1000 pounds. Secondly we looked at ways of reducing electricity used and discovered that by changing the system to Halide we could make further major savings and so a supplementary project was initiated.

Being the first church in the South West, as well as only the third in England, leads to further requests for advice on installing Photo Voltaic panels which we are happy to give. We have been given the Eco Congregation Award. But our reward is not merely financial; the PCC is pleased to demonstrate its commitment to a greener, low carbon environment.