AURORA Forest of Dean interviews Big Solar Coop


Amy Staff from the Centre for Sustainable Energy caught up with Noel Lambert, the Big Solar Co-op’s Community and Content Lead to discuss some highlights and challenges of working in the Forest of Dean.

Big Solar Co-op is a not-for-profit, volunteer-led organisation that works all over the UK and is funded by community shares. AURORA Forest of Dean have partnered with Big Solar Coop to support the development of community owned solar PV projects in the Forest of Dean and build the skills and knowledge of members of our energy community – Forest Community Energy (FCE).

Good afternoon Noel! Let’s start with some positives, what have been some notable achievements from your work in the Forest of Dean?

In the early workshops we hosted with FCE, we had many questions about whether the solar installation’s community aspect would be lost through working with us, as a national organisation. However, in the space of 2 years, we’ve supported the investigation and planning of 447kWp worth of local projects. These projects have the potential of collectively saving 55t per year in carbon emissions and £500,000 in electricity bills over the next 20 years for Forest of Dean based organisations.

Many traditional small-scale community energy projects have struggled without the feed-in tariff subsidy which in the UK ended in 2019, as relying on selling electricity back to the grid is no longer a viable business model. At the Big Solar Co-op we put a lot of emphasis on the relationship with the host site and making long term legal agreements with them to use the clean generated solar energy at a fixed and fair price. This guarantees income for us, stabilises energy costs for the host site and the community investors in the Co-op receive a return on their investment.

This is ultimately why the AURORA Forest of Dean team and FCE chose to work with us, so we could help them fast-track lots of local projects at the same time. In addition, the organisations we’re working with include a mixture of local businesses and community spaces, such as leisure centres, schools, museums, and places of worship. For many of these organisations, it will help them to have one less thing to worry about in the face of the energy crisis and sky-rocketing bills, as a large part of their electricity spend will be stabilised.

Now we’ve got a team of ten FCE volunteers working on solar site research, so we’ve got lots of representation in the Forest of Dean. They can access our knowledge hub of solar resources and get support from other solar volunteers across the UK through the Big Solar Co-op online discussion forum. This has helped them to develop skills and knowledge around what is needed to get a solar install off the ground – and on a roof!

That’s really great! How about some of the difficulties you’ve faced?

More generally, I think the capacity of FCE members has posed a large challenge. The core group are all volunteers, and already really active in the community (many of them are councillors!) so they’ve not always had lots of spare time to engage with us as much as we’d like. The Big Solar Co-op model works through volunteers taking the lead on solar projects they want to see happen in their local area, with support from us to build their capacity through regular meetings. So, although we’ve had lots of great ideas for sites, if we’ve not got that key local contact driving things forward, work on that site will often unfortunately stagnate.

You’re definitely not alone there, many organisations that work with volunteers share similar issues! Have you faced many installation-specific challenges?

Oh, there have been a few! Our largest challenge so far has been in trying to get a project with a local leisure centre up and running. We’ve had to navigate a complex building ownership structure (which requires setting up a tri-partite legal agreement). We found incorrect leases at Land Registry level, and in addition to detective work, we’ve had to spend lots of extra time creating a head of terms document. We’ve also had to adjust contracts to meet the needs of all the organisations involved (and their legal teams), which is not an easy undertaking. This has created lots of delays.

The delays meant that we had to obtain ‘Prior Approval’, as the planning regulations were clarified in December 2023 and this is now required for all solar installation designs exceeding 50kW. It involves approval from the Forest of Dean District Council Planning Committee, a CAD drawing (Computer-Aided Design), and positioning the solar system one metre away from the roof’s edge on all sides. This extra admin has been a full-time job for the Forest of Dean District council lead, it wouldn’t have been possible to continue work on this installation without her!

We’ve also faced some issues with planning regulations on another project working with a local hotel. The building is listed (which means it is protected in planning legislation), so even though the panels aren’t on the listed building, they are not allowed to be seen from the listed building or the road. So, in addition to delays, we’ve also had to reduce the size of the installation significantly.

Once we’ve got those installations up however, it’ll all be worth it though!

We’re looking forward to seeing these projects installed! Thanks so much for your time Noel, it’s been great chatting with you!

Thanks Amy!

If you’re interested in finding out more about Big Solar Coop’s work, you can check out their website: or follow them on X and LinkedIn.

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