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Down on solar farms

By Dave Elliott

Solar, wave and tidal farms represent new ventures, adding to the renewable energy repertoire. But they are facing problems, in terms of finance and government support priorities, as I report in this two-part review of the UK situation, looking first at solar PV.

The good news is that PV solar overall is doing well in the UK, with more than 5GW in place, including roof-mounted arrays on private houses and the first wave of solar farms in fields. DECC says 10GW may be possible by 2020, perhaps even 20GW: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-solar-pv-strategy-part-1-roadmap-to-a-brighter-future  But DECC- and DEFRA -are  less keen on solar farms.

The Feed In Tariff system, and the continuing dramatic fall in prices, should ensure that more domestic-scale systems continue to be installed, with Tariff prices for new small installations now ranging from 6.38-13.88p/kWh. https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/publications-and-updates/feed-tariff-scheme-tariff-table-1-january-2015-pv-only.

However, further large ground-mounted solar farms are being blocked by the government. They are eligible for support under the new Contracts for a Difference system, which offers strikes prices falling from 12p/kWh for 2015/16, to 11p for 2018/19. But, from April, PV projects over 5MW are to be excluded from support under the existing more lucrative Renewables Obligation (RO) system. In addition, farmers have lost their right to claim CAP subsidies for fields filled with solar panels, so as to ‘ensure more agricultural land is dedicated to growing crops for food’. DEFRA said this will save ‘up to £2m of taxpayers’ money each year that won’t be available for these subsidies.’ It added ‘The changes the government is making are expected to slow down the growth of solar farms in the countryside in England. There are currently 250 installed, with the biggest covering as much as 100 hectares. Under previous plans, the number of fields dedicated to solar farms was set to increase rapidly, with over 1,000 ground-based solar farms expected by the end of the decade across the UK. These changes should help to halt this expansion as it will now become less financially attractive for farmers to install the solar panels.’

DEFRA’s response is partly a reaction to some local opposition to large solar farms, on visual intrusion grounds, and also reflects the Treasury and DECCs concerns about the allegedly high cost of supporting them under the RO. But DEFRA has homed in on the land-use issue. Environment Secretary Liz Truss commented:‘Solar panels are best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops where they will not compromise the success of our agricultural industry.’ The Mail quoted her as saying: ‘I’m very concerned that a lot of our land is being taken up with solar farms. We’ve already got 250 of them and we’ve got 10,000 football pitches worth of new solar farms in the pipeline. They are ugly, a blight on the countryside, and villages are pushing production of meat and other traditional British produce overseas. I’m not against them per se – they’re fine on commercial roofs and school roofs – but it’s a big problem if we are using land that can be used to grow crops, fruit and vegetables. We import two-thirds of our apples, and using more land for solar panels makes it harder to improve that.’ www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2798657/eclipse-solar-farms-environment-secretary-liz-truss-tells-farmers-no-handouts-ugly-fields-glass-grow-veg.html

Obviously, assuming they can take the extra weight, roof-mounted projects, including the use of factory and retail outlet/warehouse roofs, ought to have priority, along with so-called brown-field sites. There is even a floating array on a reservoir in Berkshire: www.fwi.co.uk/articles/29/10/2014/147341/reservoirs-and-lakes-offer-floating-solar-space.htm

Do ground-mounted solar farms really take up so much valuable farm land? Most solar farm projects avoid high productivity land- which has high commercial value. But it seems we don’t actually know for sure. Asked in Parliament (on Oct 27) what estimate DEFRA had made of the area of land occupied by solar arrays that was arable land useable for economically farmed fruits or vegetables, the minister admitted, ‘We have made no estimate of the amount of land occupied by solar panels which was arable land useable for economically farmed fruits or vegetables’. However Business Green was happy to provide a proxy measure of land use: it said that Golf courses take up a lot more room, and naughtily wondered if they too should be challenged: www.businessgreen.com/bg/james-blog/2379507/the-national-interest-demands-it-lets-ban-golf-courses

While that issue rumbles on in the UK, solar continues to expand rapidly elsewhere, with around 180GW in place globally, including the massive 37GW in Germany, thanks for the Feed In Tariff system and big deployments in Italy and to a lesser extent Spain- the FiT system has been halted due to the country’s financial crisis. Japan, India and China are pushing ahead rapidly with PV- China has 20GW in place and may reach 100GW by 2020. So might India. Japan isn’t moving quite so fast, but PV is the main element in its renewables expansion plan-the potential for PV has been put at 140GW. Meanwhile PV maintains a steady increase in the USA having reached around 16GW so far. With talk of cheap battery system emerging, it has been suggested domestic-scale deployment, including off-grid, will expand rapidly there and maybe elsewhere.

It has been the rapid drop in PV cell and module prices that has driven PV’s expansion globally. In a new report, Poyry says PV will get to wholesale grid price parity before wind in many locations, led, in the EU, by the south: Turkey gets there by in 2018, Spain by 2021 followed by Portugal by 2022 and Italy by 2025 to 2032 depending on the specific region, although on shore wind will win in the UK, reaching grid price parity in 2021, primarily due to high achievable load factors. Retail grid price parity, which is easier to achieve since generation costs are only part of it, may be achieved earlier in many locations and its what consumers will worry most about. A recent report ‘In Sight: Unsubsidised UK Solar’, suggested that PV might reach that in the UK in 2020 or thereabouts. www.thermal1.de/studies If so, then DECC’s 20GW by UK 2020 high projection may well prove right, although the UK will still be trailing behind the leaders. Clearly countries with good solar irradiance will do better, but Germany has a climate that’s mostly similar to the UK, and has so far done very much better. The UK seems to have handicapped itself in various ways, the solar farm constraint being the latest . Or is it reasonable to protect farm land?

As I will report in my next post, the UK  also seems to be failing in terms of supporting an area of development where it really should be able to maintain a lead- marine energy.

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