The Race to UK Solar Parks

Competition intensifies as work on three solar parks commences, driven by UK’s recently launched Feed-In Tariffs. The projects will mainly rely on photovoltaic technologies, while Ecotricity’s sun park will use PV panels to combine both solar and wind energy.

By Heba Hashem

Cornwall solar gold rush

In Cornwall, a disused tin mine operational in the 18th century and abandoned in 1992, is now being transformed into a high-tech sustainable business park.

In collaboration with the Wheal Jane Group, Berkshire-based 35 Degrees will work with German solar module manufacturer Solon SE as well as Cornish solar business Plug into the Sun, to develop the site.

Specifically, 35 Degrees will be responsible for the planning, building and maintaining of the solar photovoltaic plant.

The £3.5m project, located on 7.3 acres of Wheal Jane near Turo, will use 5,000 two-metre high panels to generate 1.35MW zero-carbon solar power per year, enough to power about 300 households.

Stephen McCabe, 35 Degrees’ managing director, described the project as “the first building block in bringing a new growth industry to Cornwall and the UK”.

McCabe said he hopes to build a network of solar parks - encompassing 20 to 25 sites generating 100MW- over the next five years.

He added that the high levels of irradiation found in Cornwall, Somerset and Devon make the South West an ideal location.

Cornwall Council has estimated that solar power developments could lead to £1 billion ($1.6 billion) of investments into the rural south-western county.

“We are working with the private sector to ensure that this huge investment brings real benefits to people in Cornwall in terms of new jobs, new infrastructure and business opportunities’, explains Carolyn Rule, cabinet member for the economy and regeneration.

Meanwhile, Lucy Hunt, manager at Cornwall Development, affirms the progression: “We’re seeing the start of a Cornwall solar gold rush as developers need to have built their farms, with full planning consent, by April 2012, to take full advantage of the Government scheme”.

The Wheal Jane Project has already won approval from Cornwall Council.

Combining sun and wind: the best of both?

On the other hand, Ecotricity is constructing a 1MW grid-connected sun park, for which it won planning permission last month.

Consisting of photovoltaic panels standing in 59 two-metre high rows across 1.9 hectares, the project will be one of the first in the world to combine energy of both the sun and wind into one.

“This is a really exciting new initiative for us and for the UK. It’s not just a new green power source we can harness on a large scale through our Sun Parks, but also the chance to combine that with wind energy’, said Dale Vince, Ecotricity’s founder.

The two technologies also complement each other “For example, in winter when there is less sun, there’s typically more wind, and vice versa in the summer’, Vince added.

Headquartered in Gloucestershire, Ecotricity funds 100% of its developments and runs tender processes to select their suppliers. According to the company, their current project appeals to investors because the return is relatively fixed, while the banks remain highly conservative in terms of lending.

“Our first solar project will also be funded by our Ecobonds, which offers individuals and companies a chance to support green energy and also a share in rewards. The four-year fixed term bond has a minimum investment of £500 and offers an attractive rate of 7% or 7.5% for Ecotricity customers”.

The solar farm will be built next to an existing Ecotricity wind farm in Lincolnshire in northwest England, so it can operate from March 2011.

Disused Airfield transformed into Solar Park

London-based Rockspring Property Investment Managers is also developing its own solar park on a former world war two airfield.

Advised by renewable energy firm Ownergy, who has carried out the feasibility studies for the site, Rockspring has already received planning consent for the construction of the first phase at Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire.

Initially, 1,500 solar panels will be installed in the centre of the runway- using crystalline silicon flat plate collectors- to generate a combined capacity of 350kW. The following phases would see capacity extend to 1.2MW, providing enough energy to power the entire 600-acre business park in the daytime.

The Feed-In Tariffs will apply at 29.3p/kWh for generation and 3p/kWh for the surplus exported power. A selection process for tenders has already taken place for the project, which is solely funded by Rockspring.

“As Rockspring will be able to use the majority of the electricity onsite and sell that to their tenants, they will make additional income”, said Philip Wolfe, chairman of Ownergy.

Wolfe added that the location is absolutely perfect for a solar park. “It is an excellent use for this ‘brown-field’ site. 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”.

Future Scope and Technologies

When it comes to the most adaptable and efficient technologies for solar parks in the UK, Ecotricity finds ground-mounted static silicon PV to be the best solution, while Ownergy believes crystalline flat plate collectors will be the primary technology used for UK solar farms.

“There is too little direct solar radiation to justify trackers or concentrators. Thin film technologies may be used in the future where space is not limited, but at present they have inadequate track-record to be ‘bankable”, explains Wolfe.

Numerous solar parks of various sizes are being planned around the world, including in South Africa, the U.S., Spain, and Puerto Rico. Although the concept of large-scale, grid-connected solar parks is new to the UK, little is known about its future.

“We expect a small number to be built over the next year and then for interest to drop away as digression kicks in. The Government has also made it clear that is not supportive of mass uptake of solar parks but will be happy for a few to be built, especially on brownfield sites or where the majority of the power can be used onsite”, Wolfe stated.

According to Ecotricity, as long as solar parks remain financially viable, there will be a considerable scope and plenty of land for potential parks. “They are silent, virtually hidden visually, and with no impact on the environment”, remarks Ellen Bundell, spokesperson at Ecotricity.

Moreover, the UK’s recently launched solar PV Feed-In Tariff (FiT) system has fuelled interest and investments in the country’s solar energy. T

he scheme offers subsidies to businesses and individuals who generate renewable energy- which can be used onsite or fed into the National Grid. Income from FiT is not subject to tax for homeowners.

Also known as the ‘Clean Energy Cashback Scheme, the government-backed incentive is administered and regulated by OFGEM, obliging traditional energy companies to pay the owner of solar PV system above market rates for the clean energy that they generate. It also secures an additional price per kWh for the energy they sell or export.