Now a common site across the rest of the UK the march of the industrial-scale solar panel installation is picking up apace and set to decamp in the region.
The drivers behind this northerly silicon migration are major technology advances combined with significant price falls. The UK Government is throwing its weight behind the solar PV (photo-voltaic) industry saying it wants to see a tenfold increase in installations to 20GW by 2020.
To help achieve this it is offering subsidies more generous than those offered to EDF in last week’s Hinkley Point nuclear deal.
Large-scale solar photovoltaic subsidies are also more generous than those available to onshore wind, and with polls showing solar is the most favoured renewable technology the industry looks set to move from our rooftops on to the ground.
The most recent figures from Northern Powergrid, the electricity distribution network operator for the North East and Yorkshire show a doubling of solar PV deployment in the last year.
In 2011 solar capacity in the region consisted of 32MW and this more than doubled to 67MW in 2012, with more than 20,000 domestic properties now sustaining installations.
Despite this 100% increase, the North East and inner London are the two regions with the lowest levels of solar deployment in the UK.
This trend of increasing installation in the North East has been mirrored elsewhere with solar panels now featuring on half a million domestic and commercial UK properties.
But the main prize for developers and investors is to achieve economies of scale through large-scale solar installations on low grade agricultural land and brown field sites, such as disused airfields.
This market is now attracting some major investors who see opportunities to generate guaranteed annual returns of 10% - similar to those secured by EDF in last week’s £16 billion Hinkley Point deal (see panel).
The average domestic solar panel installation is around 4kW and usually consists of 12 panels, whilst industrial scale installations tend to vary between 2MW and 7MW. The Solar Trade Association (STA) estimates a 5MW solar farm – which will generate enough electricity to power 3,000 homes - requires around 25 acres of land. Some of the new proposals are looking at much larger scale installations with one site in Norfolk being singled out for a 50MW scheme.
To hit the 20GW target it would mean increasing the number of UK solar farms from around 100 to 600 by 2020. The Journal understands there are several developers in active discussions to progress solar farm projects in the North East, in the 2MW to 5MW size.
Andrew Davison is a partner at Newcastle commercial law firm Muckle and heads its energy team. He said: “A few years ago we were dealing with a few clients interested in such schemes but changes to the tariffs saw this fall away. It has been quiet for a few years but people are showing interest once more.”
He went on to say that improving technology means more of the sun’s rays can be captured further north.
“There had been a line drawn through the Midlands at one point saying the technology would not work north of the line but technology improvements and cost reductions have changed that.”
Muckle has experience in this sector having advised Moor Solar on the creation a 2.8MW solar park, on 20 acres of redundant farm land, near Long Sutton, Lincolnshire in 2011.
James Beard, a spokesman for the Renewable Energy Association, said: “As the technology improves it becomes economical to install panels further and further north. It is cloud cover which has the biggest impact on the effectiveness of solar panels. On a cloudless, sunny day then the panels will operate at their maximum capacity.”
Jon Bird, head of sustainability at Northern Powergrid, the electricity distribution network operator for the North East and Yorkshire, said: “In some ways the north is preferable location as it is not heat that is important in the solar equation, but light and during the summer we have longer days than the south of the UK.”
Earlier this month energy minister Greg Barker addressed the Solar Energy UK annual industry conference.This coincided with the launch of the UK Solar Energy Roadmap which the Government says it wants to see installed UK capacity to rise to 20GW within the next decade, from the existing capacity of over 2GW.
Barker said: “Solar energy is a genuinely exciting energy technology of the future. It is flexible, intuitive, and can be deployed in a wide range of applications and locations.
“In fact it is a technological marvel, harvesting the energy of the sun. It can help us create jobs, drive growth and even boost exports – while also keeping the lights on, and meeting our commitments to protect the environment. This Coalition is the first Government to recognise fully that here in the UK, well-sighted solar PV has a strong role to play in Britain’s energy mix of the future.”
The Government is supporting its growth through subsidies which are currently awarded through the Feed in Tariffs system and from next year will offered as strike price under the Contract for Difference element of the Energy Bill. The strike price for large-scale solar PV is set at £125 per MWh (megawatt hour), which is more than onshore wind, at £100, and far less than offshore wind, at £155.
But research by the STA shows it expects solar prices to fall further and by 2018 it will be the cheapest renewable technology at £85 per MWh. Solar has come a long way in just a few years. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified solar power as the most expensive of all renewable energy technologies estimating it cost twice as much generate a unit of electricity, as from a wind turbine.
But the cost of solar panels and batteries has plunged as China entered the manufacturing arena and in Germany, Italy and Spain, solar power soon won’t need government subsidies to be economically viable.
In August this year German utility giant RWE reported that due to the continuing boom in solar energy in its domestic market many traditional ‘power stations are no longer profitable to operate’.
Solar power is the most popular power generation technology scoring 86% in DECC’s recent opinion tracker and a YouGov poll for the STA showed over 70% support for good quality solar farms.
Beard added: “There is no denying the fact that some people object to the visual impact of onshore wind. While much of the objection to onshore wind is from the media and political classes who have an axe to grind there are some legitimate concerns over its impact. But it really depends on which is the optimum technology for a given site.”
Earlier this month though the solar industry was left disappointed when solar developer Lark Energy saw Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles refuse plans for the development of a 24MW solar farm on land at Ellough Airfield in Suffolk.
Pickles said that, in this case ‘the increase in the amount of renewable energy generated by the appeal scheme does not outweigh the additional harm caused to the character and appearance of the area’.
Leoni Greene, head of external affairs at the STA says it has drawn up a 10-point guidance for a good solar farm and works working with the National Trust and RSPB to encourage biodiversity at development sites.
She said: “Solar farms create no noise or waste, have no moving parts, require minimal maintenance and have a low visual impact, so it is clear why good schemes enjoy strong public support. We’ve been impressed by the level of enthusiasm from conservation groups telling us that solar could help their efforts to protect vulnerable British plant and animal species. Our 10 Commitments set out the direction of travel for the solar farm industry, which is to deliver multiple benefits, not only for the climate, but for the British countryside. We want all our members to comply with these Commitments and we believe the whole industry should get behind these standards.”
Barker has challenged to industry to live without subsidies and to “compete like-for-like with fossil fuels” by 2020. Greene says the rate of cost reduction is ‘phenomenal’ with 70% reduction over the last two years.
Much of this has come about due to cheap imports from China where its Government has heavily subsidised solar panel manufacturing companies. However this has led to a trade dispute between Europe and China which has seen the EU cap solar panel imports from China until 2016, which will slow the rate of cost reductions. The STA anticipates further significant cost reductions in solar power when the UK has access to world pricing from 2016.
Greene added: said: “There are a lot of grid access problems in the south and East Anglia. The North East is the ideal place for the development of the technologies as there is much greater network capacity”
“The North East may be one of the prime locations for future solar farm developments.”
Follow Peter McCusker on twitter @mccusker60