Solar farming is the most popular method of harvesting sunlight in order to create energy and is an excellent way to generate an additional revenue stream. It has quickly become one of the most attractive new investments for companies and independent investors. Solar farms are made up of rows of ground mounted solar panels placed on special frames and fixed within the ground. They are simply large-scale applications of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems also referred to as utility-scale or grid-scale solar PV plants typically covering an area ranging from 1 acre to 100+ acres in the UK. These futuristic looking installations can provide a source of safe, locally produced renewable energy for many years after construction.
Solar farms help to power communities and allow utility companies to maximise their energy production capacity. Although these farms harvest the sun rather than produce agricultural crops or house livestock, they must meet specific solar farm regulations and requirements in order to be allowed to operate.
Solar Farm Requirements:
- The parcel of land being considered for solar farming must be big enough. Solar farms need quite a lot of space. The biggest solar farm in the UK can produce a total of 46 MW of power and is capable of powering 14,000 homes. Approximately 25 acres of land is required for every 5 megawatts (MW) of installation while 6 to 8 acres will be needed for a 1MW farm. Space isn’t just needed for the panels themselves but for essential equipment like inverters and storage batteries too. There must also be enough space between the rows of panels to allow for maintenance access.
- The land selected will need to have a connection to the grid in order to supply the electricity that is generated. If there is no existing connection in place, one must be set up and paid for. Being close to overhead cables and a substation is usually a good indicator that a connection application may be successful. The further away a location is from the grid, the higher the cost of interconnection for the developer.
- Solar farms are normally built on rural land. There needs to be careful thought given as to the suitability of the land chosen for a solar farm. The prime spots for solar farms are either on flat land or on a south facing slope. Ground mounted solar panel systems of greater than 9m sq. (4-5 large solar panels) require planning permission. This means that all solar farms require planning permission. In order to get approval for solar farms in the UK, a series of rigorous planning procedures must be passed before work can begin. Planners will encourage the development of brownfield and previously unused land wherever possible. They will also consider the potential impact on the locality looking closely at both ecological and socio-economic factors. If greenfield or agricultural land is to be used planners will push for dual usage on the selected land, such as combining solar PV with grazing animals or wildflower meadows to help with crop pollination in neighbouring fields. Biodiversity in and around the installation area will be promoted. However, approval to turn highly fertile fields into solar farms is rarely granted. Although, solar PV arrays have a long-life span, planners will also want to see that the installation area could be reinstated with as little environmental impact as possible should the PV system be decommissioned. Planners will look at how the visual impact of a solar PV installation in areas that could be described as containing heritage assets can be minimised. A heritage asset does not need to be legally protected such as a conservation area. A heritage asset could be anything of special interest, of national or local importance or offering some other value that could be adversely affected through the installation of a solar PV system. The cumulative effects of multiple solar PV systems within an area will also be considered. It’s a good idea to involve local authority planners and particularly Conservation Area officers in planning permission decisions in sensitive areas as early as possible.
- Due to the size of sites used for ground mounted Solar PV arrays there is often a requirement as part of the planning process to understand the impact of a site on changing the flood risk to the surrounding area and drainage. The flood risk assessment will assess the most common concerns raised by the Environment Agency and Local Planning Authority which include:
- Location of transformer, inverter, substations units etc. within the floodplain
- Location of solar panels within the floodplain
- Fencing and solar panels interrupting conveyance of floodwaters freely across the site
- Safe site access / egress
- Location of development within statutory buffer zones for rivers and watercourses
- Land raising / built construction reducing the flood storage capacity of the site
- Potential for increased surface-water runoff and erosion from the site.
- Increase in impermeable surfaces
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Solar Farm Costs
Over the years solar farms have had a reputation for incurring eye-watering start-up costs. Though they are still not cheap the last decade has seen a huge decrease in cost. Amazingly, solar farms can now be set up for over 80% less than in 2010.
This is largely due to their increasing popularity which has meant that solar panel manufacturers have been able to develop more cost-effective components. The average price of solar panel modules was around £200,000 per megawatt produced, or 20p per watt, in 2019. Economy of scale has a part to play here as larger capacity solar farms work out costing less per watt than smaller ones.
However, this isn’t the full cost of the development and while the price of solar panels might be going down the same can’t be said for land or labour. In 2020, the average value for an acre of UK farmland was between £12,000 and £15,000, although plots can easily exceed this depending on location and accessibility.
Every project will be different, but the overall cost of an individual solar farm will be determined by several factors some of which we have already mentioned, including:
- Size/capacity of the site
- The solar technology and other components used
- Whether there’s an existing grid connection
- Engineering, Procurement and Construction contractor used (A form of building contract used for a large or otherwise complex project under which the builder, the EPC contractor, will deliver a completed project on a turnkey basis)
- Type of Operations & Maintenance contract (Full asset management, protection and optimisation for your renewable assets) put in place
- Ongoing security measures implemented
While solar projects still have quite high start-up costs, they are somewhat offset by much lower ongoing costs. Solar farms have minimal demands in terms of operation and maintenance and there are no waste products to deal with either. After the initial investment, there shouldn’t be a need for any large operating costs in order to keep a solar farm running.
There continues to be a constant flow of new planning applications for solar farms in the UK. New sites totalling 2.6GW were added to the pipeline in the first 6 months of 2020 alone.
For every 5MW of capacity installed, a solar farm will typically produce enough energy to power more than 1,350 homes while saving 1,200 tonnes of carbon annually. This is based on an average annual consumption of 3,600 kWh of electricity per home.
The biggest benefit to solar farms is their role in meeting the National Grid’s renewable energy needs. They provide green electricity and reduce reliance on fossil fuels which produce harmful greenhouse gases. Solar technology is a proven source of safe, locally produced and sustainable power.