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Science & Technology»Countryside to sprout solar farms as firms cash in on subsidy scheme

»Friday, May 14,2010

Fields in Gloucestershire’s rolling countryside, immortalised by Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie, may soon be covered by thousands of solar panels. Despite the lack of guaranteed sunshine, the solar farms will make a guaranteed profit because of a generous subsidy funded through increases in household energy bills.

The rate of installation of solar panels will increase five-fold in Britain this year because of this feed-in tariff, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Ecotricity, a renewable energy company based in Stroud, is planning dozens of solar farms and is considering sites near its headquarters.



Dale Vince, the company’s founder, admitted that trying to generate solar power under England’s frequently grey skies was an inefficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the sunniest parts of England, the farms will generate a third less electricity than farms of the same size in southern Spain.

 However, Mr Vince said that the Government’s feed-in tariff scheme, which began last month, had made solar farms economically viable.

He intends to announce within weeks the location of the first 25-acre, 5-megawatt solar farm. By 2020 Ecotricity plans to be generating 500 megawatts of electricity from solar panels, enough to power more than 100,000 homes. Mr Vince told The Times: “We are planning to build grid-connected solar farms all over the country.

“We are looking on the East Coast, the South West, the South East and around here in Stroud. We don’t want to go too far north because the sunshine drops away. Halfway up the country would be the cut off, a bit north of Birmingham.”

He denied that solar farms would be a visual blight on the landscape, arguing that they would be less obtrusive than wind turbines or rows of polytunnels used to grow fruit and vegetables.

“They won’t stand more than 2 metres (6.5ft) tall so you won’t see them if you look across the landscape because they will be obscured by hedgerows. “You would see them if you were standing on a hill but the visual impact is very minor compared with wind arrays.”

However, Mr Vince said that some of his farms would have solar panels and turbines in the same fields. “Solar panels and wind turbines complement each other well because in summer the winds are lighter but there is more sunlight, with the opposite in winter.”

He said that solar panels were six times as expensive per unit of electricity generated as onshore wind turbines, which are themselves several times more costly than gas or coal plants.

Commenting on the subsidy available, Mr Vince said: “We don’t think [a feed-in tariff policy] is the best way to go but it’s here and rather than sit and sulk and say it shouldn’t be done, we are just going to get on and do it.

“The more people do it, the more efficient and cheaper the technology gets.” The farms will cost £15-20million each but Ecotricity will receive index-linked income for 25 years from the feed-in tariff, which starts at 29p per kilowatt hour. This should deliver a return of at least 8 per cent a year.

The coalition Government has pledged to keep the tariff. Indeed, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats argued while in opposition that the rates were too low.

John Marjoram, the deputy mayor of Stroud and one of Britain’s first green councillors when elected in 1986, welcomed the idea of solar farms but said that 40 per cent of the district was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“Of course we would encourage every sort of renewable energy because we are so far behind the rest of Europe. But we will also have to consider the visual impact,” he said.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said that it would be better to place banks of solar panels on factory and warehouse roofs and above car parks. It said that some farms in the countryside could be acceptable, depending on the quality of the landscape.

Fields in Gloucestershire’s rolling countryside, immortalised by Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie, may soon be covered by thousands of solar panels.

Despite the lack of guaranteed sunshine, the solar farms will make a guaranteed profit because of a generous subsidy funded through increases in household energy bills.

The rate of installation of solar panels will increase five-fold in Britain this year because of this feed-in tariff, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Ecotricity, a renewable energy company based in Stroud, is planning dozens of solar farms and is considering sites near its headquarters.

Dale Vince, the company’s founder, admitted that trying to generate solar power under England’s frequently grey skies was an inefficient way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the sunniest parts of England, the farms will generate a third less electricity than farms of the same size in southern Spain.

However, Mr Vince said that the Government’s feed-in tariff scheme, which began last month, had made solar farms economically viable.

He intends to announce within weeks the location of the first 25-acre, 5-megawatt solar farm. By 2020 Ecotricity plans to be generating 500 megawatts of electricity from solar panels, enough to power more than 100,000 homes. Mr Vince told The Times: “We are planning to build grid-connected solar farms all over the country.

“We are looking on the East Coast, the South West, the South East and around here in Stroud. We don’t want to go too far north because the sunshine drops away. Halfway up the country would be the cut off, a bit north of Birmingham.”

He denied that solar farms would be a visual blight on the landscape, arguing that they would be less obtrusive than wind turbines or rows of polytunnels used to grow fruit and vegetables.

“They won’t stand more than 2 metres (6.5ft) tall so you won’t see them if you look across the landscape because they will be obscured by hedgerows. “You would see them if you were standing on a hill but the visual impact is very minor compared with wind arrays.”

However, Mr Vince said that some of his farms would have solar panels and turbines in the same fields. “Solar panels and wind turbines complement each other well because in summer the winds are lighter but there is more sunlight, with the opposite in winter.”

He said that solar panels were six times as expensive per unit of electricity generated as onshore wind turbines, which are themselves several times more costly than gas or coal plants.

Commenting on the subsidy available, Mr Vince said: “We don’t think [a feed-in tariff policy] is the best way to go but it’s here and rather than sit and sulk and say it shouldn’t be done, we are just going to get on and do it.

“The more people do it, the more efficient and cheaper the technology gets.” The farms will cost £15-20million each but Ecotricity will receive index-linked income for 25 years from the feed-in tariff, which starts at 29p per kilowatt hour. This should deliver a return of at least 8 per cent a year.

The coalition Government has pledged to keep the tariff. Indeed, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats argued while in opposition that the rates were too low.

John Marjoram, the deputy mayor of Stroud and one of Britain’s first green councillors when elected in 1986, welcomed the idea of solar farms but said that 40 per cent of the district was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“Of course we would encourage every sort of renewable energy because we are so far behind the rest of Europe. But we will also have to consider the visual impact,” he said.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England said that it would be better to place banks of solar panels on factory and warehouse roofs and above car parks. It said that some farms in the countryside could be acceptable, depending on the quality of the landscape.
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