Banister House Solar: Wilhelmina Stewart

Wilhelmina Stewart is a co-director of Banister House Solar, an energy co-operative in Hackney. It started in 2015 when Repowering London trained 30 young people from the estate to instal and maintain solar panels on the roof. The co-operative raised £149,000 through a community share offer and will benefit from cheap electricity and revenue from the feed-in-tariff, that will go to other community projects.

1. What do you do?
I am a mother of five, a grandmother of eight and I am a Hackney resident. I work in the teaching profession but I am what they call semi-retired. I’m trying to tell myself to slow down!

I came to think country when I was eight and migrated from Liverpool southwards right down to Derby, Nottinghamshire and finally London. When I moved to London in 1974 I only had two children so there must have been something in water!

I’ve lived in Hackney for the last 15 years and regularly visited Banister House to support their community projects. When Ann Canaii (chair of the Banister Tenants’ Association and director of Banister House Solar) asked me to come on board as a shareholder I seized the opportunity.

2. What is the point of the project?
To harness the energy of the sun. It’s up there! It’s free! We just to harness it and utilise its energy wisely. Rather than polluting the earth and depleting the energy that we’ve got why not harness the sun so the community can have a way of keeping warm, cooking, providing hot water without having power stations.

It’s amazing when you can just put it through the meter and feed it through the grid. Especially because the land in London is taken up by development, so we don’t have space for power stations. Now we have these little battery cells that sit on top of the roof sending power to the grid and making money for the community.

As part of the project the young people were trained to build and maintain the solar panels. I came on board towards the end of the project but I got to meet a lot of the young people, especially a young man who sadly lost his life, Ziggy. He was a driving force, he kept the young people inspired and he fought for people to get paid on the project. His question about subsidies was even answered by David Cameron in the Houses of Parliament.

It was breathtaking because it was showing respect to the young people and giving them a voice. I felt that was reciprocated because the young men, after they were listened to and given the opportunity to present themselves, produced everything Banister House has got.

3. When was the moment you decided to do this?
I was voted in as a director. A director has resigned. I had bought shares for my grandchildren and I decided I wanted to get more involved. So I’m there every meeting. I felt this was something I needed to see to the bitter end. If you have invested something you must see it through.

4. How do you fit it in?
We don’t have as many meetings as it sounds. The meetings are co-ordinated and we have an AGM coming up. It will be one year, so we’ll be looking at the returns and the shares and any other business.

At some point we’ll look at getting other people involved. Aga’s vision is that, with the pilot scheme in Brixton and other people are on board, we can get other boroughs to do the same.

4. What’s been your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment was seeing the whole thing take off. Switching on the panels and getting a mention in Parliament. Seeing the young people enabled by the project and knowing that they are the future and that they are going to respect and take care of that future.

That’s what I see with Aga [Agamemnon Otero, co-founder of Repowering London]. He’s so passionate. I think he’s on solar panels himself, he’s got a battery in him somewhere!

Charity executives visit the solar panels on the roof of the Banister estate

5. What’s been hardest?
The hardest moment is getting started. When you go to someone with an idea and they look at you like, “what’s in it for you.”

No one ever listens to us. The council always does what it wants. That’s the toughest thing, getting those in power to say, “We hear you and we’re not going to overlook this.” Often the council do something and you can petition for or against it but the council have already made that decision. So the hardest thing was overcoming those challenges and coming out the other end.

6. What drives you when it gets hard?
Nothing is impossible, until you have tried. I don’t like that word: can’t. I want to prove that it can be done. That’s what motivates me.

7. What’s the next step?
We want to take it worldwide! We have so much, heavenly father has given us so much! And yet we fail to recognise that, we don’t see what we need to see and how to use it. It’s there for the taking.

That’s the toughest thing: getting those in power to say ‘We hear you.’

If we respect the environment we get back. We want to see as many people as possible take that bold leap. There’s a saying that if you want to go across the ocean, you have to leave the shore.

9. How will the outcome of the EU referendum affect what you do?
I don’t see how it will. Unless it’s about funding, that might be an issue. I’m praying that this doesn’t have a big impact on solar energy, because it comes from the sun!

10. What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?
Give it a go! E-mail Aga. Do the research, come and visit. Come and take a tour. Find like-minded people. There will be people who rain on your parade, so find people with vision who can see beyond their nose, people who will look up the implications of what’s around them.. It’s not about yourself and your home but your bigger home, which is the community and beyond.

One thought on “Banister House Solar: Wilhelmina Stewart

  1. Great to see this initiative. my company has patented the smart solar panel which contains an embedded smartcard chip and communications circuits which link them to a smart energy ecosystem based on the Internet of Things (IoT). Individual panels can form a “solar garden” where investors receive tradable rights to be rewarded for the renewable energy produced by “their” panels. The chip resists cyber-attacks and provides the IoT “trust anchor.” Secure applications running on each chip allow energy trading using “smart contracts” and validate renewable energy payments with “certificates of origin”.
    My company is currently being supported with a grant from Innovate UK’s energy catalyst programme. A custom solar panel company in Wales has built prototypes and we are working with a university near the M25 to build a test-bed to trial this idea.

    Future electricity grids will contain many of these smart edge-of-network IoT objects running new well-supported smartcard applications, so good luck with this project.

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