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For many of us at M&S, 2016 will be remembered as the year of the ‘summer of solar’ – not thanks to sun-soaked staycations and cold drinks by the BBQ, but because of what has been going on up above our heads. We have successfully completed installation of 3,236 solar panels, located on the roofs of eight different M&S stores stretching from Cheshunt to Cheshire Oaks. What makes this project special to each and every site is its community focus.

Earlier this year, in a ‘first’ for both community energy and the UK retail sector, M&S launched a unique ethical investment initiative. The newly created M&S Energy Society set about raising capital to install, own and operate solar panels on roofs of M&S retail stores, for a period of 20 years, with 100% of its distributed profits going to help local causes and charities.

The innovative share offer proved extremely popular with the public and was oversubscribed, leading to its target maximum of £1.15M being raised from more than 300 investors in 34 different counties. The result is an extensive new community energy portfolio, comprising 841kWp of solar electricity, generated on and used in M&S stores each year.

The benefits extend far beyond just direct beneficiaries, though. As well as financial rewards for customers who invested and community projects receiving funding, the scheme also brings further social and environmental sustainability gains. The on-store solar will simultaneously generate renewable energy, reduce demand for grid electricity and cut CO2 emissions – so helping tackle both energy security and climate change. In terms of community impacts, it will also support local project tacking fuel poverty.

The project embodies three important M&S Plan A commitments:

  • Firstly, M&S is committed to purchasing electricity for its own operated stores and offices from renewable sources;
  • Secondly, there is a separate Plan A commitment to ensure 50% of the electricity used in our building operations comes specifically from small-scale renewable sources by 2020; and
  • Thirdly, that M&S operated locations seek to make a positive difference in their community, by supporting charities through volunteering and aiming to fundraise £1M per year from 2015.
Of course, much of the success of any pioneering project comes down to the quality of the team and M&S was able to collaborate here with some experienced experts in the field: Energy4All, a leading social enterprise responsible for day-to-day management; plus Joju Solar, a specialist installer of solar panels.

Key factors identified as helping the smooth running in the delivery phase of the programme were:

  • Prioritising preparation, particularly with legal permissions;
  • Optimising timing – minimising disruption and delay, whilst maximising speed of build and integration; plus
  • Involving all stakeholders from an early stage and dealing well with third-party complexities. 
In terms of taking these learnings forward, both at M&S and across the built environment and energy sectors at large, the continuing drop in solar installation prices means there may also be prospects for making future projects work financially, despite changes to the government’s Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs).

Having broken new ground with our on-store community energy solar project, we hope the example of M&S will help inspire other owners of large commercial buildings to consider their suitability and availability for community energy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every year saw a ‘summer of solar’?

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