Repowering London’s Solar Development Manager is setting her sights on a skyline stuffed with solar PV
“I’m a happy girl when I’m rummaging through someone’s recycling bin and reorganising it,” admits Henrietta (Etta) Dale, Repowering London’s Solar Development Manager. And it’s partly a curiosity about waste – in particular in reducing it – that has led her to Community Energy, via a course of study at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales.
She explains that an internship at a solar reuse company, ReSolar, during her MsC course at CAT introduced her to the lifecycle of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and an understanding of the complexities of their potential reuse. How to better manage solar panels to reduce waste is now the topic for her dissertation, which she is in the process of writing – and which has meant she has had to learn an awful lot about the “actual nuts and bolts of the solar panel”.
“There’s a strong focus on making solar panels more efficient, rather than making panels more recyclable or, even better, reusable,” says Etta, “and the solar waste crisis is already a huge issue. We need to think about the waste hierarchy and the circular possibilities of solar products. Reuse should come above recycling and we need a lot of changes in the UK solar industry to make that happen”
Understanding of the subject is still at the early stages, Etta believes. However, “generally speaking, people are beginning to understand that you can’t ever make something with a view to using it once. And the type of people who make solar panels are also the type of people who know that better than anyone.”
Etta knows well herself that there are quite a lot of complexities around the reuse of panels with broken glass and is prepared for the idea that: “We might find that there is absolutely no point in fixing the glass in panels, and they should just be recycled.” For the moment, though, she’s keeping a hopeful vision and has an optimistic goal: “I’d really like to see a thriving solar panel refurbishment and resale market in the same way there is for second-hand white goods – with products checked, guaranteed and delivered straight to your door. We need to do something about the PV waste crisis coming and reuse has a vital role to play.”
So how does all this end up with Etta arriving at Repowering London? After taking a couple of years’ break from work to have and look after her daughter, she was, she says: “lucky enough to spend a while thinking about what I wanted to do.” Having always been interested in environmental work, she decided to do a masters at CAT. There she heard a lecture from Repowering London about Community Energy and was inspired to find out more.
“I got into Community Energy as part of the journey of trying to do something positive for the environment. At the same time, I was trying to green my finances and save for my daughter. So, I decided to look for a local energy group and found North Kensington Community Energy (NKCE). I took part in a community share offer that funded solar installations on the Westway Sports Centre, and also helps build a Community Fund that goes back into local projects. I couldn’t think of a better way to save and also make a positive impact in the community.”
As well as investing in NKCE, Etta began volunteering for the co-op, which she says was an “amazing” experience. “I found lots of people in my local area who had the same concerns as me and were trying to take action in similar ways. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by what you need to do [to stave off the climate crisis], knowing that you’ve got a community of people who share values with you is really powerful.”
She describes Community Energy as “a way of being active without activism” and believes it has an important role. “After all, activism isn’t appropriate for everyone and it’s maybe not where they’re going to excel. NKCE and other Community Energy co-ops really help fill a niche for people who want to take action but don’t know necessarily what action to take.”
As a volunteer at the co-op – and later a Director – she also found a very supportive, nurturing environment to help her take her next steps back into work. Then, when the role as Solar Development Manager came up at Repowering London, “it was really a perfect fit”. “One of the interview questions was: ‘Can you talk with enthusiasm about Community Energy?” I said: “I just did that at the NKCE annual general meeting!”
At Repowering London, Etta says it’s now her job “to be the central contact point that brings together all the team’s amazing work finding sites, making contacts, bringing people together and doing community outreach, and turns all of that into actual panels on actual roofs.”
The role has been quite cleverly designed, she says: “to give me space to also have ideas, to see how those links can be best utilised or to get new things happening. Though there’s a standard model for Community Energy, it’s exciting to be talking about new and innovative ways of doing it.” For the past few months, Etta’s days have been a non-stop ride of assessing rooftops and carrying out solar feasibility studies – in 2022, she completed 16 of these, with the potential to add some 1.1MW to the Community Energy pipeline in London.
Looking ahead, Etta says her most exciting achievement will be to move from “Oh, that looks like a handy roof” to actually getting new panels up and turning them on. “More panels on more London roofs, that’s what I’d like to see – and more all the time.”