Solar panels on farms

By Ian Youngman - 01 Dec 2010 9:0:0 GMT
Solar panels on farms

Solar panels on a farm building; Credit: © Shutterstock

With their farming income less than needed to be comfortable financially, farmers have been extending into a wide range of non farming activities on their land and in their buildings. The latest money making venture is also environmental friendly. Farmers are taking money from private energy companies to have solar panels put up in their fields, aided by grants and with future income from the electricity produced.

The majority of these companies are German and Chinese. A British company has now come on board.mO3 Power is a UK based solar developer and independent power producer. Chariman of mO3 Power, John Moreton, is a substantial landowner in Hampshire where he has successfully developed his own sustainable energy generation capacity using biomass.

The company develops, builds, owns and operates large-scale solar PV parks, up to a 5MWp maximum, in The Midlands, Southern England, East Anglia and South Wales. PV = photovoltaic, which is the method of converting solar radiation (sunlight) into direct current electricity. So a PV park is an area of solar panels. This could be anywhere, from a field to the roofs of a housing estate, and connect directly into the National Grid.

mO3 Power differs from competitors in that it is British and that it targets brownfield sites already blighted by existing neighbourhood uses e.g. next to major roads, airports, heavy industrial plants. Any farmland it sites panels in is disused and non-productive agriculturally. mO3 Power partners with landowners and enables them to benefit from solar energy without any of the costs of construction, ownership, operation or maintenance. The concentration on brownfield is in response to concerns that large-scale parks in the middle of fields will scar the landscape. Brownfield sites are abandoned government, industrial and commercial facilities often contaminated with materials that make them unsuitable for residential purposes, but are perfect for applications such as solar farms.

There are now over a hundred planning applications from farmers. The impetus for this sudden rush to the countryside is due to the Feed-in Tariff scheme that the government launched in April to meet European Union targets on renewable energy. FiT offer Solar PV tariffs payable for 25 years from connection of the installation to the grid. As well as annual fees from energy companies of up to £50,000, the farmers get generous government financial incentives .The rush is because the payment structure, set up by the previous government, is being reviewed in 2012. Ministers have suggested that as farmers are getting large fees anyway, the feed-in tariff, which was aimed at small-scale roof mounted systems rather than industrial scale projects, will end for large-scale solar parks.

Most farmers opt to deal with a renewable energy developer, as they will do all the work. But some prefer to have more control so work with a private investor who will set up a company to run the business. Another alternative is to deal direct with a power supplier. A 30-acre farm can take up to 18,000 2ft-high panels. The farmer receives a payment for any power transmitted from his land to the National Grid.

Wind energy provider Ecotricity has just obtained planning permission for a solar farm at a site adjacent to one of its wind turbine farms in Lincolnshire. Ecotricity's plans to develop a series of Sun Parks – fields of photovoltaic panels. Ecotricity expects to commence work at the site within just a few weeks and have it fully operational by March next year, which it claims will make it the UK's very first large scale, grid connected, sun park. This project will also be one of the first in the world to combine the energy of both the wind and the sun into one. These two power sources are complementary and Ecotricity sees a major role for such hybrid energy parks in the future.

Ecotricity's adjacent Wind Park at Fen Farm has been making green electricity for its customers since it was built in 2008. The photovoltaic panels will stand in 59 rows just 2 metres high on a 4.7 acre (1.9 hectare) site, and with a capacity of 1MW will make enough green electricity for around 280 average homes each year for the next 25 years. Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, says,” It is not just a new green power source we can harness on a large scale - but also the chance to combine that with wind energy. The two are complementary technologies, for example, in winter when there is less sun there's typically more wind, and vice versa in the summer. Solar PV panels work in daylight even under the UK's cloudy and dull skies, have almost no impact on the ground below, and are easily removable and almost completely recyclable at their end of their useful life. The energy payback of the site – the time it takes to repay the energy used to create the solar panels – is expected to be just two years, and they will keep on producing clean energy for around 25 years.”

Another site also claiming that it will be the first UK one is in Westcott on a former World War II airfield in Buckinghamshire, Rockspring Property Investment Managers has received permission to develop a solar park. The first phase will have 1500 solar panels in the middle of a runway, with a combined capacity of 350kW. The company hopes the energy will power the 70 companies in its adjacent Westcott Venture Park. Rockspring wants to expand the park's capacity to at least 1.2MW. Renewable energy company Ownergy is advising on the venture and Philip Wolfe of Ownergy comments: "The occupiers of the Westcott Venture Park will be able to use the electricity we produce and so maximise the financial return for Rockspring. This is exactly the sort of project the feed-in tariffs were designed to support."

The solar PV market is strong across Europe. Germany, Italy, France and Spain are the world leaders in the generation of electricity from solar PV and the UK seeks to join this select group.

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Topics: Solar Energy / Renewable Energy