As a result of urban-rural migration and the demand for second homes in the countryside, there is a shortage of affordable social housing in Wales, and, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, this is contributing significantly to the level of poverty in the Principality, currently affecting almost one-quarter of the population. While the Welsh Government has been criticised for allowing rent increases in the social rented sector to outstrip inflation, there is a need for more social housing and Community Housing Association Cymru contends that some 4200 new social sector homes need to be built each year, with a target of 75,000 new properties within 20 years.
One innovative entrepreneurial response to this challenge is provided by the Pembrokeshire-based Western Solar, a small start-up located in West Wales. According to its website (westernsolar.org.uk) the business is “dedicated to manufacturing ultra-low -energy affordable homes built on sustainable principles and the desire to alleviate energy poverty in housing”. It is a limited company, founded in 2011, that is an example of harmonious entrepreneurship addressing, as it does, not just one but several inter-related sustainability issues.
It was founded by Dr Glen Peters, a former Senior Partner in the energy sector of PWC, who had difficulty accepting that in the fifth richest country in the world, the United Kingdom. Peters explained, “we were producing bundles of solar energy effortlessly, and 40% of people living in social housing couldn’t afford to heat their homes”. Accordingly, his mission was, and is, to provide low-cost quality social housing that addresses the issue of fuel poverty, helps the environment and boosts the economy. His vision was of homes that relied heavily on solar energy, but first, he had to debunk the myth that the climate in Wales could not support a solar energy project. Initially, he built the first large-scale photovoltaic plant in the Principality, using 1200 panels capable of generating sufficient power to service 500 homes and save 1100 tonnes of carbon.
Having done this, he then went on to create a prototype high-quality, well-insulated, airtight house based on a German design. It was constructed by local builders using locally sourced materials and powered by solar energy. The property used for the frame homegrown Sitka spruce, dried and machined locally, local Douglas Fir for the window frames and Welsh Larch for the cladding. EPDM rubber was used for the roof, which was topped with photovoltaic cells. The result (Ty Solar) was a two-storey 100m2 property that used only 12 per cent of the energy of a traditional home and took about two weeks to manufacture and assemble at the cost of around £100,000. The main building materials, Welsh larch and Douglas fir, would normally have been used as power station fuel. At the same time, the 11 inches of cavity wall insulation was treated non-flammable recycled paper, permitting the whole building to breathe.
Despite the success of the prototype, none of the major housebuilders was interested in investing in the venture, and he and his team realised that they would need to change perceptions. With the aid of a £141,000 grant from the Welsh Government, Peters converted an abandoned cowshed into a factory and hired and trained local people, on a Welsh Government apprenticeship scheme, to build the homes. A brownfield site – a former garage – was acquired at Glanrhyd in North Pembrokeshire but it took a year before planning permission was granted, and it was not until 2017 that a showcase hamlet of 6 houses could be built. The properties were rented, through a subsidiary of Western Solar, to families on the social housing register and two of the company’s employees were trained to be licensed landlords. The energy needs of the residents were serviced by 192 solar panels on the roofs of the 6 houses, which also charged an electric car that could be used by the residents for social and domestic purposes. Any surplus energy was sold to Green Energy UK for use by its customers.
Since then, in July 2019, Western Solar has built another six houses at Clos yr Haul in Ammanford in partnership with the Coastal Housing Group and these 6 properties will help save 160,000 tonnes of CO2 over the next 60 years, the equivalent of planting 2 million trees or taking 60,000 cars off the roads. Additionally, the firm has plans to build 1000 properties across the UK including, in Wales, a garden village at Boncath in Pembrokeshire. Here, each of the Scandinavian designed homes has the potential to save 70,000 tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of planting 200,000 trees.
When opening Pentre Solar in 2017, the then Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs in the Welsh Government, Lesley Griffiths, acknowledged that the Hamlet “will not only provide much-needed housing for local people but will also address many other issues such as energy efficiency, fuel poverty, skills development and the use of Welsh timber”.
As the Minister recognised, Western Solar is an example of an enterprise that harmonises social, environmental, humane and economic entrepreneurship to address the sustainability challenge in general and the problem of affordable Welsh social housing in particular.
Morris, S. (2017). ‘Inside Glanrhyd, the first solar “eco hamlet” in Wales, The Guardian, 6th January 2017.
Pyke, C., (2019), ‘Solar homes green lit for West Wales projects’, Wales Online. 5th March 2019.
Pyke, C., (2016). ‘The first village in Wales to be powered by the sun is now ready for its first residents’, Wales Online, 25th October 2016.
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