There has been a scramble to build larger solar farms in the past year and practically all of these are commercially owned. These larger projects have been too expensive to develop ourselves but we have been talking to several project developers with a view to buying their projects, once permitted, so that they become community owned. Ironically, it is easier and cheaper to obtain a bank loan for the large projects than the small ones. These projects are in the range 2 to 7 MW so are a step up from the projects we have developed ourselves. If successful they would help us to get to our 2015 target of having £10m invested in community owned projects. At this level we would be starting to make a significant contribution to local energy needs and place BWCE on a sustainable footing for future growth.
Solar farms have been less controversial than wind farms although no one wants to see the countryside covered in solar panels. In practice however there is a finite number of sites that can be developed which is determined by the local grid capacity.
Solar arrays can make a significant contribution to local energy needs. For example, just 0.5% of the land area in B&NES put down to panels could provide 10% of the electricity for the whole region. In fact, if wind is not an option, solar becomes the only viable renewable energy technology that can make a difference. A 7 MW solar farm would provide the same output as 3500 household systems (and potentially less visual impact particularly when compared to solar pv placed on older slate and tile roofs).
There are also positive ecological benefits. Since WWII there has been a dramatic loss of many different wildlife habitats to accommodate the needs of our growing population. The main land loss has been to housing and employment but changes in the use of agricultural land has seen even more significant habitat loss (subtly different to land loss). As an example 97% of hay meadow or semi-natural grassland has been lost in lowland England and Wales in the past 50 years. So there is an opportunity with solar PV to create a substantial number of wildflower meadow and semi-natural grasslands that could support many of the species that have struggled as a result of the loss of hay meadows. We are working closely with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to increase the biodiversity, and monitoring the impact of, the 1 MW solar array at Chelworth in Wiltshire which we developed for Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy.
We will only enter into agreement to buy projects once they are fully permitted. Should that happen we would be looking to raise significant finance later this year. It will be a huge step forward for BWCE to see the returns from these projects being ploughed back into the local economy.