Solar trains pioneer receives its first commercial funding

  • Posted: 18 Sep 2020

Solar trains company, Riding Sunbeams, has received its first commercial funding from Thrive Renewables and Friends Provident Foundation. This will enable the team to develop community owned renewable energy projects to directly power the rail network at a commercial scale for the first time

World-leading solar rail pioneer Riding Sunbeams has secured its first commercial funding from Thrive Renewables and Friends Provident Foundation, in exchange for a minority shareholding in the business and an active role in governance. Founded by climate charity Possible and Community Energy South, Riding Sunbeams will use the investment to develop a pipeline of new renewable energy projects in South East England and the Valleys in South Wales, to deliver on its aim to help decarbonise the rail system and benefit commuters and local communities.

The new working capital will enable Riding Sunbeams to provide a commercial route to market for community energy groups looking for new projects to develop and connect them to regional rail network operators like Network Rail who will pay them a fair price for their power. This will enable rail network operators to source competitively priced green electricity at the same time as supporting local communities, as well as the UK’s efforts to achieve a net zero economy.

Riding Sunbeams hopes to demonstrate a new, fairer, greener way to do business and embody how a just transition is possible by bringing together charities, communities, corporates and government to decarbonise and power the rail network. With its world-leading model it intends to boost the community energy sector and overcome existing barriers like grid constraints and energy price volatility, to ensure local people benefit from projects in their neighbourhood. Community groups and developers with eligible projects are being encouraged to get in touch with the organisation.

Following this funding agreement, the company formally incorporated a commitment to a just transition in its legal rules of governance, making it the first UK company to do this. Unlike other companies who have committed to socially and environmentally responsible behaviour, Riding Sunbeams wrote a just transition commitment into its legal working agreement. This means that any decision taken by the social enterprise will be made in line with the principles of a just transition.

The team proved the technical concept of powering railways directly by solar power with its First Light demonstrator project in Aldershot last year. Riding Sunbeams is currently leading another First of a Kind project funded by Innovate UK and the Department for Transport, which aims to power electrified rail networks which run on alternating current (AC) power from overhead lines. 

Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, said,

"It is fantastic to see pioneering projects that we have supported through our First of a Kind competition progressing their plans to decarbonise our railways. Harnessing innovation like this will be crucial to modernising the railway and making journeys greener and cleaner, and I welcome this vision becoming one step closer to reality."

Ivan Stone, CEO of Riding Sunbeams, said,

"We are delighted that both Thrive and the Friends Provident Foundation have chosen to invest in Riding Sunbeams. This reflects enormous confidence in our purpose to deliver competitively priced, unsubsidised low carbon energy directly to the rail network, with a clear commitment to community ownership. The investment will accelerate our already well advanced technical development, and establish the appropriate commercial framework with rail system operators for them to take advantage of these opportunities as soon as possible."

Matthew Clayton, Managing Director at Thrive Renewables, said,

"We are incredibly proud to provide commercial funding to Riding Sunbeams, which aligns perfectly with our mission to power the transition to a sustainable energy future by helping people meaningfully connect with clean energy projects. It is a great example of individual investors, communities, businesses and charities coming together to deliver better, cleaner infrastructure which serves people’s needs and is fit for the future.We have a track record of successful partnerships with community energy groups, funding construction of wind and solar projects owned by local people. Riding Sunbeams has the potential to take that to a whole new level by creating a new route to market for community energy groups’ clean electricity and making rail travel even more sustainable."

Colin Baines, Investment Engagement Manager, Friends Provident Foundation, said,

"We are very excited to be a part of this pioneering model. By unblocking the potential and benefits of community energy and enabling large energy users, like railways, to both decarbonise and add value to the communities they operate in, Riding Sunbeams exemplifies what a just transition to a decarbonised economy looks like. I know of few impact investments that offer such a myriad of social and environmental benefits as community energy, but there are also too few investment opportunities. Riding Sunbeams provides the opportunity to remove systemic barriers and unleash the potential of community energy to play a key role in ensuring a just transition that leaves no one behind."