South Hams pay £500,000 for solar power which ‘could have been free’

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Solar panels (image courtesy of Raysonho/Wikicommons)

Greens say council also squandered £500,000 on Aldi plans

South Hams Council have been accused of wasting half a million pounds on funding solar panels on leisure centers in the district after it was revealed the project could probably have been done for free.

In April, councilors approved plans to lend Fusion Lifestyle, which runs the four leisure centers across the South Hams, up to £500,000 to install solar panels which would reduce fuel costs and CO2 production .

During the full board meeting on Thursday, July 14, members discussed the operation of the funding agreement with Fusion.

The council agreed to buy the solar panels as part of its capital program for 2022/23, instead of giving Fusion a loan to do the same.

Instead of repaying a loan, the board would instead receive a regular income from Fusion equal to what the loan repayments would have been.

But Green Party councilor for Dartington and Staverton, Jacqi Hodgson, said neither the council nor Fusion Lifestyle needed to put money up front as it could have been fully funded by the Totnes Renewable Energy Society ( TRESOC).

TRESOC was founded 15 years ago to fund the 4.6MW community wind farm in Totnes, which was later denied permission.

The society has 540 members and manages several sustainable energy projects.

Cllr Hodgson explained that TRESOC had originally hoped to install solar panels on the roof of the Pavilions Leisure Center in Totnes and later indicated that it would be willing to install solar panels on all four Leisure Centres.

She said this could have been done at no cost to the council or the leisure centers and that TRESOC would have recouped its expenses by reselling the excess energy to other users or to the national grid.

Cllr Hodgson asked, “Why wasn’t the overall cost difference assessed? In other words, the difference between us having to borrow £500,000 and all other costs associated with that rather than a free installation.

She went on to suggest that the council had a history of misusing money.

“I think it’s a pretty serious matter. We’ve just lost almost £500,000 in the last two weeks due to a terrible situation with Aldi and I think we need answers before we go from forward with the next 500,000 we spend.”

Totnes Town Council has previously supported TRESOC’s plans for recreation and is now organizing signs to go onto the town hall.

TRESOC founding member and chief executive, Ian Bright, explained why he thought the board lacked vision.

‘Some residents will buy their excess electricity at 20p instead of 30p,’ he said.

“So we can do it straight away with Totnes Leisure Center and we’ve been saying that for 10 years.

“We had a meeting with them and eventually they (SHDC) said they were going to put solar panels on all South Hams leisure centers except Totnes Centre. And they were considering what they were going to do with it, and it was unlikely that they had any idea what it would be like in two years.

“And that’s the last we heard from.” And then the next thing we hear is that they do!

“And even if they do, they’re using council money and there are homeless people around here.”

South Hams Council venue and business manager Chris Brook insisted they were not ignoring TRESOC but believed their plans were unsustainable.

“The vast majority of all the electricity generated by the solar panels will be consumed by the leisure centers themselves,” explained Mr Brook.

“So that kind of model, I guess, wouldn’t have worked there. It’s up to them, but I still think it would have been difficult.

“So it’s not a conspiracy. I’m not trying to do anything weird here. It’s just not the way to go in this case.

Cllr Hodgson and Mr Bright dispute Mr Brook’s analysis and say that even if the leisure centers had little or no excess energy from the panels, TRESOC would have the ability to provide a low cost tariff while avoiding any initial cost.

Despite concerns raised by Cllr Hodgson, councilors approved a £500,000 capital budget for the solar panels.

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