It’s the shortest day of the winter, but the bright blue morning means the UK’s biggest solar farm is powering away. The 120,000 matt-black panels laid out in long, neat rows above sheep-shorn grass are running at about three-quarters of their peak capacity.
A few miles west, the giant chimney of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station is pumping smoke into the sky. “It’s a nice contrast between the new and the old,” says Jonathan Selwyn, chief executive of Lark Energy, which developed the solar farm on a disused second world war airfield at Wymeswold in Leicestershire. The panels sit between the old runways, now used as racetracks, and were erected in just seven weeks in the spring.
At the Packe Arms, busy with Christmas lunchers, landlady Hilary Holmes is unfazed by the 60-hectare (150-acre) solar farm, the edge of which sits 250 metres from the pub door. “Is it built already?” she says.
In nearby Wymeswold, Howard Cox, who runs the village hall, is similarly unperturbed: “If anything there’s been a benefit in deflecting the sound of the cars on the race track. More people complain about the chicken farm at the other end of the village, which smells on a hot day.”
Solar farms, each with thousands of panels, are popping up all over the country and now number 250. Costs have halved in two years and are still falling fast – on track to be cheaper than both onshore wind and nuclear power within a few years – and solar is by far the public’s most popular energy technology. At Wymeswold, the sheep are said to fatten up quicker in the shelter of the panels, while elsewhere wild flowers feed bees and wildlife scurries back and forth through gaps under the fences.
The Wymeswold solar farm, at 33MW capacity, will be overtaken by a series of bigger farms: 40MW at the Science Museum’s big object store in Wiltshire, 41MW that started construction last week on low-grade farmland in Oxfordshire and a 90-hectare, 50MW farm proposed by Good Energy at another disused airfield in Norfolk.
But the burgeoning industry has seen its sparkle dulled by a series of recent attacks from Conservative ministers, with planning supremo Eric Pickles overturning permission for another old airfield solar farm at Ellough in Suffolk, Greg Barker at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) signalling a crackdown on “monster solar farms”, and his colleague Michael Fallon deriding subsidies for large solar farms as immoral.
“It’s very frustrating,” says Selwyn. “The government is making its whole policy based on just a few controversial and badly sited projects.” He says there was not a single planning objection to the Wymeswold farm and, until Ellough, Lark Energy’s success rate in getting planning approval was 100%.
As for critics, Selwyn says, those who claim glinting solar panels will blind their views forget that solar panels absorb light, not reflect it, while he argues that the £3.75m the solar farm earns each year in electricity sales and subsidy is a fair return on the £35m capital cost.
Ray Noble, co-chair of Decc’s solar strategy board, says: “If we put the solar farms on flat fields, low-grade land, away from houses and roads and get the screening right, no-one knows they are there. I reckon 85% are like that but a few overseas companies saw the opportunity and came in and put farms next to homes and on hills and that is what hit the press.” The 700MW capacity of solar farms will have doubled by March 2014, he says, and there’s three times more again in the pipeline, all of which are required to meet Barker’s ambition for 20,000MW of solar by 2020. If achieved, that capacity would generate as much electricity as two or three nuclear power stations.
But Barker, a resolute supporter of renewable energy, is unrepentant about his “monster” put-down. “It is because I care passionately about solar and have such high ambitions for it that I do not want public opinion to turn against it and make it become the new onshore wind,” he says. “Where problems arise, the solar farms are on undulating land and can’t be screened, or they disrupt historic landscapes. It really upsets people.”
Claire Norman, at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says: “Too often they are inappropriately sited, too large and with no consideration to landscape impact. Also, we cannot afford to take valuable agricultural land out of use by sacrificing it for solar farms, which enjoy very generous taxpayer subsidy.”
Jonathan Scurlock, chief renewable energy adviser at the National Farmers Union, disagrees: “They are not any kind of threat to agricultural land, because they allow dual use: either biodiversity, which is increasingly required, or livestock grazing … this diversification can be really important in making the business sustainable.”
A solar farm arrived this month on the doorstep of David Cameron, with Solar Century’s 13MW project near Eynsham in his Oxfordshire constituency. It attracted only one planning objection.
“Our experience with local communities is very much the opposite of the negative solar farm stereotype presented by some Conservative ministers and parts of the media,” says Solar Century’s chairman, Jeremy Leggett.
“It’s ironic we are having this discussion just as Decc has confirmed half the country may be opened up for fracking. Now there’s a technology that really is seeking to industrialise England’s beautiful countryside.”
Barker concedes: “There is a role for large solar parks, but I do not want to see a proliferation or a laissez-faire approach.” For him, the big opportunity is on the roofs of commercial and industrial building: putting solar on just 16% of all such buildings would deliver the 20,000MW, he says. Barker also notes the huge growth in UK solar capacity, from virtually nothing in 2010 to 3,000MW in 2013.
While solar farms have good economies of scale, Leonie Green, at the Solar Trade Association, says large roof installation make good economic sense too, because the solar power used on site can replace electricity bought at the retail price, rather than exported to the grid for the wholesale price. “But this ‘mid-scale’ solar is falling through a policy hole,” she says, because of the legal and technical difficulties. Barker agrees and is already working on solutions as “a priority”.
Noble, a solar industry veteran once at BP solar, says: “Yes, there are an awful lot of roofs, but it is a very hard market to move” because of the legal complexities of commercial roof ownership and building rules. He says all forms of solar technology will be needed to hit 20,000MW by 2020 and reckons a third will need to come from panels on home roofs – 500,000 houses already have them – a third from mid-scale and a third from solar farms. The underlying reason for the latest attacks on the latter is clear, he says: “It is purely political. There are too many Conservative MPs worried about winning their seats at the next election, so when there is a local fuss they want to be seen to take action.”
Back at Wymeswold, Selwyn, whose company has already installed solar on 150 commercial roofs and 600 social housing homes, remains certain about the popularity of well-sited solar farms. “Government policy seems to be running directly against public sentiment,” he says. “And what I don’t understand is that the people behind these solar farm projects, the farmers and landowners, are the Conservatives’ natural allies.”