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UK solar rail pioneer secures funding for community solar farm

The 3.75 MW Cuckmere Community Solar Farm in Berwick, East Sussex, will be built to power the London mainline railway via a ‘private-wire’ direct connection. 

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Riding Sunbeams ran a solar demonstrator pilot project last year
Riding Sunbeams ran a solar demonstrator pilot project last year

UK Solar rail pioneer Riding Sunbeams has been awarded a £2,527,500 grant to build and connect the world’s first MW scale renewable solar energy plant directly powering the railways in East Sussex.

 

The funds are from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (SELEP) £85m share of the government’s new Getting Building Fund, created to invest in local infrastructure projects to drive economic growth and support a green recovery in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

 

Community solar farm

 

Electric trains that run on renewable electricity have a carbon footprint that is nearly one hundred times lower than diesel trains. The 3.75 MW Cuckmere Community Solar Farm will be located in Berwick, north of the Eastbourne, to power the London mainline railway via a ‘private-wire’ direct connection.

 

The solar farm was granted planning consent in 2017, but like many community energy projects up and down the country, it has been struggling to find a business model that works, given that solar energy has not been economic without subsidy.

 

The connection to the rail track therefore provides an important route to market for the project, ensuring its future viability and a replicable business model that subsequent groups can benefit from.

 

With the funds secured, the solar farm is expected to be supplying power to the local railway network by March 2022. After completion, Cuckmere Community Solar will launch an investment offer so that the project can be owned by local community members and rail commuters who use the network.

 

Ollie Pendered, executive director, Riding Sunbeams, said the vision is to power trains with commercially priced and unsubsidised renewable energy with a positive social impact. He added: “This award will enable us to work together to prove that MW-scale solar can be directly connected to the railways and open up the market for region-wide solar connections.

 

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to show the UK rail sector that commercial innovation can help power us all to the zero-carbon future we need.”

“This award will enable us to work together to prove that MW-scale solar can be directly connected to the railways and open up the market for region-wide solar connections”

In order to qualify for the government grant, Riding Sunbeams had to demonstrate that building Cuckmere Community Solar Farm would provide key local and national benefits:

  • green jobs – up to 40 over the project’s 25-year lifetime
  • annual carbon projected savings of over 820 tonnes/year
  • social and financial benefits for the local community arising from community ownership
  • boosting the resilience of the local electricity network
  • facilitating Network Rail’s ability to source low carbon power.

“Trains are already an incredibly efficient way of carrying people and freight – and our ambition is to run a railway that’s sustainable as well as efficient,” said Paul Harwood, southern region investment director, Network Rail. “This grant is just great news and we look forward to working with Riding Sunbeams in Sussex, continuing the success of what we started in Aldershot.”

 

Network Rail is the single biggest user of electricity in the UK. The success of this project will enable it to procure green electricity at scale and a competitive price, while also creating social value for the communities it serves through better use of its assets.

 

It also provides a commercial route to market for community energy groups looking for new projects to develop that are financially viable without support from government subsidies.

 

The team proved the technical concept of powering railways directly by solar power with its successful First Light demonstrator project in Aldershot, last year. Riding Sunbeams is also working with other UK customers including Transport for Wales and Transport for London to deliver a similar model; the commercial success of this project will provide a model through Network Rail that can be replicated throughout the country.

 

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