Public “goodwill” towards large-scale solar farms will eventually run out as more massive applications are lodged in the Westcountry, an expert has predicted.
Companies are currently competing in a “dash” to secure the best sites for photovoltaic (PV) panels in Cornwall, where solar radiation levels are higher than anywhere else in the country, with Devon close behind.
It has put the South West at the forefront of a renewables “gold rush”, with solar PV applications increasing by 600 per cent in just one year, and talks in progress over applications as big as 224 acres – nearly six times the size of London’s Olympic Stadium island.
Andrew Rowson, assistant research fellow at Exeter University’s Centre for Energy and the Environment, said a solar farm which produced five megawatts of energy, and would measure around 37 acres, was “easy to hide” in the right landscape.
Solar applications are currently seen as less controversial than wind farms, which often swiftly provoke a well-organised protest campaign.
Wind farms produce around 2.5 times as much electricity as well-placed solar farms. But solar is lower maintenance and more constant, and it is currently easier to find sites.
But Mr Rowson predicted: “I think we’ll see the tide change. Already, protest groups are getting pretty mobile and the goodwill towards PV applications on this scale will eventually run out. It’s just a question of whether there are other limiting factors before then. The cost of grid connection is what will ultimately limit the possibilities.”
Green energy now employs around 10,000 people in the South West, and is a fast-growing industry.
At the moment, large solar farms are seen as a safe financial bet because of the cost of panels produced in China plunging by up to 50 per cent. It means the low-maintenance sites are still considered lucrative despite the adjustment of the Government’s feed-in tariff, which covers applications up to five megawatts. It now gives a lower return, but is guaranteed for 25 years.
Applications larger than five megawatts are subsidised through Renewable Energy Certificates, and the Government is currently working to set the rates for solar returns.
Cornwall Council is in pre-planning talks with Good Energy over a 224-acre solar farm at Week St Mary, between Launceston and Bude, which would be the largest in the UK and would produce around 30 MW of electricity.
Already, Cornwall Council’s figures show the county is home to around 12 five-megawatt sites that are under construction or up and running, with around 15 more agreed and a further 15 under consideration. Dozens of smaller applications are also dotting the countryside.
Adrian Lea, planning delivery manager at Cornwall Council, said feed-in tariff rates were determined based on solar radiation levels in the geographic centre of the country, but the further south-west that applications are sited, the more lucrative they become. “If you were going to build solar anywhere in mainland UK, you’d look at Cornwall,” he said.
Devon also has a number of large-scale applications in the pipeline, including a 54-acre site at Bowhay Farm, Shillingford Abbot, near Exeter; 37-acre plans at Marley Thatch Farm in South Brent, South Devon; and Bommerton Farm, near Molland and between Fremington and Roundswell, in North Devon.
North Devon district and county councillor Rodney Cann expressed shock at the latter application, saying: “The sheer size is just breath-taking.”
In fact, it is one of many of a similar size currently on the table in the Westcountry.
The landowner, farmer Michael Isaac, says Lumicity Limited’s 37-acre plan at Horsacott Farm is not invasive and is just a way to keep the family farm up and running. “To make a living from farming, people are either getting a lot bigger, which brings its own difficulties, or farming part-time,” he said. “This is a way to give me the time and income to invest in farming properly.”
Jim Hunt, whose blog Econnexus takes an interest in renewable energies, is opposed to the 37-acre proposal for Bowhay Farm at Shillingford Abbot. He questioned the loss of grade II agricultural land, despite the developers’ proposal that sheep could still be grazed underneath. He said: “A lot of people think that area should be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and they’re worried about the impact on the landscape.”
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