Will Solar Farms Play a Future in UK Energy?

Green activists were up in arms earlier this year as the government planned to end large subsidies to solar farms, cutting millions of pounds of funding that were earmarked to help the UK meet its targets for renewable energies.

According to the Solar Trade Association: “The UK needs solar power to meet the 15% EU renewable energy targets by 2020, but it also creates investment and local green jobs, whilst reducing the reliance on overseas fossil fuel imports.” http://www.solar-trade.org.uk/solarFarms.cfm

But it’s not just funding that is causing problems for this fledgling renewable energy source. Residents are often not happy when land is earmarked for a solar farm, particularly when it is covering several acres. In Adcliffe, Lancashire, a proposed development over 31 acres and with 18,600 solar panels has got the locals banding together to raise their objections. It’s a perennial problem for many renewable projects, the impact on the environment and, as many residents see it, the despoiling of the natural beauty of an area.

It takes around 25 acres to produce 5 Mega Watts of power that can be fed into 1,500 homes and many landowners see solar farms as a way to earn extra revenue. The costs can range from thousands for more localised, smaller farms, to billions for installations such as the largest one in the Mojave Desert in the US which has some 350,000 panels.

While some solar farm projects have been delayed or blocked by irate residents, others have used innovative ways to raise money and involve the local population. Westmill on the Wiltshire border used funding from loans and the formation of a local cooperative to raise the £18 million that was needed to develop their solar farm covering 30 acres.

The project is designed to benefit the local community: “As well as offering local people the opportunity to share in the direct rewards of the project, the solar farm provides a number of associated benefits for the area. These include boosting the local economy by making sure the profits stay in the area, encouraging visitors and raising the local area’s profile.” http://www.westmillsolar.coop/aimsandbackground.asp

But it’s often the negative stories that tend to make the news and give the impression that solar farms are struggling to get a foothold in the UK’s renewable energy provision. Even comedian Griff Rhys Jones has been involved in blocking a major solar farm development in Suffolk and, with the loss of 600 million in government subsidies, we may be seeing the end of such large scale projects for the time being.

After the boom of the last few years, it may take the industry some time to recover from the recent setbacks. That doesn’t mean smaller scale developments are not still enjoying a fair degree of success. They are often seen as a good investment for farmers and other landowners who have a small amount of land free, allowing them to feed into the grid, cut their energy bills and make a little money on the side.

According to the BBC, the future of solar farms may be in space rather than here on Earth. Scientist John Mankins has an idea to send solar panels into orbit, the energy from which can be ‘beamed’ down to ground stations using the power of microwave. The problem? It needs $20 billion to get the project started. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130226-space-based-solar-farms-power-up