British retailer M&S to crowdfund GBP 1.2m community solar venture


U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) has announced plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise £1.23 million ($1.76 million) for this installation of solar panels atop nine of its English stores.

The company has set up M&S Energy Society to work with local communities and organizations interested in developing clean, community-backed energy projects. The M&S Energy Society will partner with not-for-profit group Energy4All on this initial project, which will invite local members of the public and business to invest between £100 and £100,000 in the crowdfunding pot.

Cumulatively, the nine retail stores will host 891 kWh of solar capacity once the project is complete, with contributors pledged a 5% rate of return each year on their investment. M&S will buy the energy produced by the solar panels under a 20-year PPA.

"This project is a great opportunity for customers to invest in green energy and help the environment, while also supporting local community groups," said M&S Plan A project manager Lydia Hopton. "We’re really excited that M&S will be the first retailer to launch a scheme of this kind."

Any profit made by the M&S Energy Society on the solar energy produced will be distributed through a community benefit fund, which will steer cash towards additional energy-related projects in the localities of the PV installations.

Those who have invested in the project will be offered a vote on how, where and how much is spent on certain initiatives and charities, M&S said.

For Energy4All, the collaboration with M&S is the first of what it hopes will be many ventures with British corporations keen to play a larger role in helping the U.K. transition to more renewable energy sources. Thus far, Energy4All has backed some 20 clean power co-ops in the country, the majority in wind, but sees solar’s modularity as a key strength in attracting a broader base of investors and community members.

However, recent cuts to solar PV FITs have, in the words of an Energy4All spokeswoman, “put a dampener” on its blueprint. Nonetheless, M&S’s solar embrace – the company boasts the largest rooftop array in the country (a 6.1 MW system in the East Midlands) – is encouraging, with the retailer eyeing the goal of sourcing 50% of its electricity from small-scale renewables by 2020.

Elsewhere in the U.K., other large household names have shown their support for solar, not least supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, which has more than 170,000 solar panels installed nationwide, while Kingfisher, the owner of hardware stores B&Q and Screwfix, is spending more than £50 million ($71 million) on solar arrays for its stores over the next few years.