Inside the huge new Yorkshire solar farm that will generate electricity for a council in Cheshire

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IT is nearly the shortest day of the year and little light penetrates the gloom, but Yorkshire’s newest solar farm is generating energy.

More than 90,000 panels, set out with military precision across 200 acres of farmland near Easingwold, are the first in the country to track the path of the sun as it crosses the sky.

Toddington Harper founder and CEO of Gridserve, pictured at the York solar farm, which has been bought by a council in Cheshire

Toddington Harper founder and CEO of Gridserve, pictured at the York solar farm, which has been bought by a council in Cheshire

The 34.7MWp farm, the largest in the region, was officially handed over to Warrington borough councillors on Wednesday.

The council - some 100 miles away in Cheshire - paid £62m for both the Easingwold farm and one being built at Bilton, near Hull and expect them to generate an operating surplus of £100m over three years.

The Hull farm will supply all the council’s electricity needs and cut its bills by up to £2m a year, while the York farm’s power will be sold on the open market.

Warrington councillor Judith Guthrie expects others to follow their example.

Artist's impression of the electric forecourt in Braintree

Artist's impression of the electric forecourt in Braintree

“East Riding Council have been talking to us - they want one as well,” she said. “It’s a win win and we are dead excited about it.”

Asked why they came to Yorkshire she said: "Because the land was available. Gridserve (the developer) were able to get the land. Warrington is quite a small borough."

Gridserve is now preparing to submit planning applications for new forecourts to be built alongside the two farms with the aim of making charging electric vehicles “as easy as using petrol stations”.

The incessant rain of recent months has proved a trial, particularly on the Hull site, which should be completed by the Spring.

How the forecourt will look in Braintree, Essex

How the forecourt will look in Braintree, Essex

“We were very unlucky, it was difficult to build in those conditions, but we are now cracking on again,” said Gridserve chief executive Toddington Harper.

Unlike standard south facing panels, the panels used by Gridserve track the sun from east to west, producing a steady flow of energy, rather than peaking around midday.

Some of the energy goes directly into the grid, some into lithium-ion batteries stored inside 40ft shipping containers, which can be fed into the grid, when there is high demand and a better price.

Although the site looks industrial in its newly-built state, Mr Harper stressed the environmental benefits when they start underplanting the panels with wildflowers next year.

Mr Harper said: “In order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change we have to move the needle within the next 10 years.

“Previously it has been very difficult to do that because it costs you more to deliver clean energy than the polluting alternative.

“What this project demonstrates is that renewable energy can stack up economically without the requirement for any subsidies and on the basis of pure economics.”

He says it should supply the energy needs for 20,000 electric vehicles, doing an average 7,900 miles a year, for the next 30 years.

In September councillors in Braintree approved the first of what Gridserve hopes will be a new UK-wide network of electric forecourts. Gridserve claims most vehicles will be charged in under 30 minutes, with customers able to while away the time shopping and in an airport-style lounge.

There are over 425 solar farms in the UK - but they have their critics.

In July residents in South Stainley, near Harrogate, voiced concerns about the “sheer scale and character” of a proposed 49.9MW solar farm nearby.

Meanwhile a wildflower which honeybees are attracted to could provide an unexpected boon for the solar farm.

The silvery leaves of silverweed are good at reflecting light and could be perfect for underplanting the panels.

The bi-facial panels generate energy from both sides, and next year they will be look at whether they actually increase the amount of energy the panels produce.

If they do, said CEO Toddington Harper “we have created a business case to plant huge amounts of bee-friendly plants.”