Is the number of solar farms set to double?
"The number of solar farms will more than double this year despite a Government pledge to stop them from blighting the countryside."
The Times, 21 January 2014
Few people will be hoping for a brighter 2014 than solar farm owners, and this morning's Times reports that the coming year could see a boom in the number of fields filled with photovoltaic panels.
While this might be good news for the renewable energy market, it hasn't been welcomed by all. At the end of last year, Energy Minister Greg Barker told one MP who had raised concerns about the impact solar farms had on the countryside that:
"I share the concerns of the public about the potential growth of large-scale solar farms in areas of attractive countryside that have a significant detrimental impact on the landscape…. Local planners should be clear that we do not wish to encourage large scale solar farms in inappropriate locations."
Is the anticipated doubling of solar farms this year evidence that this pledge is being ignored?
The Times quotes an analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers as the source of its claim that between 150 and 200 large solar farms will be built this year, so we got in touch with the accountancy firm to ask for more details.
PwC told us that although nothing had been published on the matter, one of their analysts had crunched some numbers for the Times, and reached the figures that the newspaper quotes. We're hoping to receive details on exactly how these figures were reached from PwC soon, and will update when we know more.
However we can get a good idea of the growth in solar farms expected by the government by checking the Department for Energy and Climate Change's (DECC) renewable energy statistics.
These show that there are 343 solar projects in the pipeline that have either been approved by planners, or are under construction.
However the Times article refers specifically to "large solar farms of 10 acres and above." While the DECC data that we've seen doesn't list the area covered by each prospective solar farm, we do know that the government classes any project that produces 5MW of energy per hour as large-scale.
The expected generating capacity of each development is recorded in the DECC data, and if we limit our analysis to those meeting the 'large-scale development' threshold set by government, we can see that 151 solar farms are have been given the go-ahead by planners.
Of course this doesn't mean that all these developments will be completed this year, nor does it necessarily mean that these will be the only developments completed this year; more may be waiting for planning approval.
However taking this different approach does give us a figure that is roughly analogous to the one used in the Times, and one would indeed give double the 120 large-scale solar farms that are currently operational. That's the closest we've been able to get without more explanation from PwC.
Encouraging large solar farms?
All of the large projects currently listed as approved or in construction in the DECC data received planning approval before Greg Barker made his pledge to limit the development of big solar farms on green belt land.
In fact, some have suggested that the Government's plans to reduce the generosity of payments solar farm operators are currently eligible for under the Renewables Obligation scheme in April this year have led to developers rushing to complete work on their solar farms before the cut-off point.
So while there is some evidence that 2014 will be a bumper year in terms of the number of solar farms completed, it is less certain that this is evidence that government pledges to discourage large, rural developments are being ignored.