Solar energy ‘still viable’ despite tariff shake-up

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SUN farms, converting sunlight to electricity on a large scale, were being planned for this region until the government declared its intention to rewrite the tariff for green electricity last weekend – and could still be viable, according to one specialist.

The Feed-in Tariff (FiT) for electricity from renewables was published only a year ago and both the National Farmers Union and the Country Land & Business Association say changing the rules now is unfair and short-sighted.

But the Department of Energy and Climate Change says the original FiT was threatening to create more solar power than DECC could afford while failing to provide enough incentive for turbines linked to anaerobic digesters, producing gas.

DECC is officially “consulting” but is proposing to halve the payments for solar production feeds of more than 50 KW and add a little extra for digester power from August 1. However, it wants to make conditions to discourage the use of crops as opposed to waste in digesters – which the farmers’ lobby says is also a mistake.

Minister Greg Barker said there could already be 169 MW of large-scale solar capacity in the planning system – equivalent to solar panels on 50,000 homes. He said: “Such projects could potentially soak up the subsidy that would otherwise go to smaller renewable schemes or other technologies.”

Before Mr Barker made his announcement, Graham Dodds of Dodds Solar, based at Driffield, was saying: “A £33,500 investment could produce a total return of £108,500 over 25 years. Dodds Solar is working with farmers across Yorkshire. In a number of cases, we are planning to develop full solar fields.”

After the DECC announcement, Mr Dodds said: “Although this would affect the profitability of some larger schemes, solar energy remains a very viable option.” He said he had clients still considering 100 KW-plus schemes.

Robert Meadley, a renewables specialist for farm business advisers Brown & Co. of Brigg, was running two seminars on solar for interested farmers this week, in collaboration with NFU and installers Beba Energy, at his family’s farm at North Frodingham, where they are planning an installation on a grain store roof.

He said the most northerly solar farm project he knew of was at Market Rasen, but the FiT had made solar a good alternative to wind in North Lincs. and East Yorkshire, which have just enough sunny days.

He thought most projects over 50KW would now be abandoned, but the sums remained unchanged for smaller set-ups, sufficient to power farm activities like drying and cooling and supply a surplus to the grid.

The Renewable Energy Foundation, a think tank set up to separate the economics of renewables from the politics, said the extra incentive for anaerobic digestion was welcome but still not enough and the rewrite on solar added to the “growing and self-defeating complexity of government interventions in the electricity markets”. Research director John Constable said: “The case for a single and simpler instrument, such as a carbon tax, grows stronger by the day.”

Jonathan Scurlock, for the NFU, said: “The fast-moving international solar industry will be driven from the shores of Britain.”

William Worsley, president of the CLA, called for an extension of the old rules deadline to April 2012.

The DECC announcement can be found at Consultation details at Brown & Co.: 01652 654833. Dodds Solar: 01377 272777.