Bright future for district’s solar farms or is ‘gold rush’ now over?

An image showing how the company behind the Steyning plan says the scheme would look
An image showing how the company behind the Steyning plan says the scheme would look

Three solar farm developments have been proposed for the Horsham District and one granted approval by the council but Lumicity CEO says the sudden ‘boom’ is now over.

Planning applications have been submitted to Horsham District Council by three separate companies in a bid to build solar reserves in Partridge Green, Steyning and Ashurst.

One large scale plan to develop in Dial Post was granted in January’s planning committee meeting, but those aforementioned are pending consideration.

The purpose of a solar photovoltaic (PV) farm is to provide the surrounding area with electricity and save on carbon emissions, but residents have expressed concern that the farms may be a ‘blot’ on the rural landscape.

CEO of Lumicity Tristan Fischer plans to build its solar panels on 50 acres of land at Ford Farm in Ashurst.

Mr Fischer said that the project would ‘impact the community as little as possible’ and the company will ‘bend over backwards’ to revise the project accordingly.

“Ideally, we could sell electricity to local customers directly,” said Mr Fischer.

“This would mean that locals could get cheaper electricity than what they are currently paying and we would get a higher income and would not need any Feed-in Tariff at all. Customers would benefit and the solar industry would benefit. Overall, electricity bills would fall for everybody. Unfortunately the current rules do not allow us to do this.”

Last year the government revealed in its National Infrastructure Plan (NIP) that £375bn of investment will be in energy, transport, communications, and water projects.

The UK also signed up to the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which launched a new UK target of 15 per cent of energy (electricity, heat and transport) deriving from renewable sources by 2020.

Following the government’s requirements, Lumicity’s solar panels would occupy the land for 25 years, and the developer’s plan promises to include wildlife grazing and growth of wild flowers and grasses.

Despite its benefits, Mr Fischer said that sceptical companies believe the solar market will dry up completely in the next 12 to 24 months.

“Very few solar companies believe that the UK will get anywhere near the UK government target of 22GW of solar by 2020.”

It has not been an easy ride for potential developers after a tariff slump in 2010, making a lot of businesses bankrupt.

“The solar market in the UK kicked off in 2010 and nearly died in 2011 when the UK government slashed the Feed-in Tariffs for solar very suddenly.

“A large number of solar companies went bankrupt during that time as they had ordered inventory but could not sell it.

“A lot of people lost their jobs and entrepreneurs who had set up solar companies based on the back of government promises to support the industry lost their life’s savings.”

Mr Fischer said that the Feed-in Tariff rate for solar energy recently dropped again after a ‘historical’ plummet in early 2013, deterring other potential solar farm developers.

“As a result there are fewer and fewer projects being developed in the southern part of the UK.

“First, getting a grid connection is extremely difficult as there is little grid capacity available.

“Second, because costs are either flat or stable, and revenue is going down, margins are tighter, which means that there is a preference for larger sites to cover the cost of the grid connection. But because there is little grid capacity in the south larger sites are not possible,” said Mr Fischer.

As a result the CEO said that these four projects are the few surviving developers ‘limping to the finishing line’.

“The solar boom in the south of the UK is over and the projects that are reaching the planning stage now started development 12 to 24 months ago.

“What you are seeing now are the few surviving projects limping to the finish line, rather than the beginning of a wave of solar projects.”

One large expense, Mr Fischer said, will be the infrastructure between the farm and the point of connection, as provided by UK Power Networks.

“Think of it as an extension lead going from your house out into the garden. We are paying for the ‘extension’ lead. A very expensive extension lead.”

Also the revenues generated by the solar farm will contend with the big cost to build and maintain the solar farm itself.

“The issue is that the cost of the solar PV farm relative to the possible revenues made by the solar project is very high. This makes the projects highly sensitive to the cost of connecting to the grid.”

Therefore, Mr Fischer said Lumicity’s project is a ‘very low margin business’.

“Once built they are highly reliable sources of power and the difference between a sunny year and a cloudy year is only about 10 per cent. For a wind project the difference between a windy year and a windless year can be up to 40 per cent.”

Lumicity have consulted Ashurst Parish Council on the development and promises to take the interests of the community into account.

“We also provide direct community benefits to provide financial support for specific activities in the area of our project.”

Once the solar farm has reached its 25 year mark, it will be dismantled and returned to open land, but with sheep grazing and the nurture of plantation it is not expected to leave a scar on the landscape.

Unlike a few other solar farms, Lumicity will not be offering residents the opportunity to take out shares on the project.

He said: “On a project of this scale this is just not feasible.”

The proposal is yet to be approved by Horsham District Council.