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Home   Kent   News   Article

Green energy report: Companies planning solar panel expansion across Kent

13 December 2013
by Chris Price

To people working in the industry, the case for solar farms is the strongest among all energy forms.

The rows of sunray-absorbing panels, known as solar PV, use a free source of energy – the sun. The land they are built on is not wasted, as it can still be used for agricultural purposes like sheep grazing.

They work on bright and cloudy days, unlike temperamental wind farms which have to be turned off if gusts get too strong or just sit there idly on still days.

Solar panels such as these could soon become a common site across the county

Solar panels such as these could soon become a common site across the county

You cannot hear them and solar panel farms largely cannot be seen, sitting only a couple of metres off the ground, usually on brownfield sites.

So where’s the problem?

“Most of the applications for large solar farms in Kent are on high-quality agricultural land,” said Campaign to Protect Rural England spokesman Jamie Weir, who looks after the Kent branch of the charity.

“Whilst we all know renewable energy should play a part in the future energy mix of the UK, it must be located in the correct places to ensure it is doing the most good. Even the Solar Trade Association, the industry body for solar farm companies, has said in their guidance that best and most versatile agricultural land should be avoided.

“The Minister of State for Climate Change Greg Barker has also stated that the focus for solar development should be on brownfield land and rooftops.”

Despite all its positives, the problems facing the solar PV industry is a technical one. Even if developers find the perfect brownfield site, tucked away from view, it is of no use if it cannot be connected to the National Grid.

“The biggest problem solar firms have got right now is finding access to the grid,” said Solar Trade Association chief executive Paul Barwell.

“You may have the most perfectly sited solar farm but if you are too far away from a grid connection it is not going to work. It won’t be economic for you to build a new grid connection.

“That is why it can be sensitive because you can have farms which are less ideally suited but if it has a great grid connection it needs to be capitalised on so there is a proper route to market.”

The new style T pylons which the National Grid says could replace the taller lattice type

Keeping tabs on how this growing industry will affect Kent’s countryside is a tough task. Unsurprisingly, many applications are appearing along the ‘northern corridor’ chosen by the National Grid for expansion between Canterbury and Sandwich.

Yet with so much interest from so many companies, it is hard to keep track of how many of these farms could be popping up.

The last count by CPRE Protect Kent indicated more than 30 sites are either undergoing Environmental Impact Assessments, awaiting a planning decision, or have received council approval for a farm to be built there.

Many have also been rejected after strong local opposition. The majority are in the early stages of the planning process. Consequently, development companies are keen to allay public fears on their proposals.

Lightsource Renewable Energy is in the consultation stage on two sites near Herne Bay and near Ramsgate. It has an active community engagement process on all its projects and is also looking to recruit landowners willing to rent space for solar PV in Folkestone, Ashford and Canterbury.

Operations director Mark Turner said: “Every single solar PV company should take responsibility for engaging more with local communities.

“Solar power is a very powerful form of sustainable energy because it can be deployed quickly and economically without harming its surroundings. Therefore if more companies chose to get involved with local communities, we would see a significant increase in awareness about the technology.

'Solar power can bring down electricity bills next year, if it is given the opportunity and support'

“Solar power can bring down electricity bills next year, if it is given the opportunity and support.”

Perhaps the key to the future success of solar power lies in how it can help the government deal with one of the nation’s biggest political hot potatoes: soaring energy prices.

Not only has the cost of setting up solar panel farms dropped by 50% since 2011 but also solar energy will be the cheapest renewable energy to produce by 2020, even eclipsing nuclear power.

Yet there are fears the UK could slip into an energy crisis if the government decides to strip green subsidies from gas and electricity bills, which appears all the more likely after the Prime Minister’s alleged “green crap” comments.

Mr Barwell, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, added: “There have been a number of negative comments by all parliamentarians over the last month, starting with Ed Miliband’s comments about freezing electricity bills.

“Talk of rolling back green subsidies and the rumoured comment by David Cameron does not help. It is negative rhetoric which is going to undermine the industry and investor confidence.

“I understand the political football the government is using with renewables right now. It is going to be a hot topic for the next election. ”

As more and more planning applications are submitted, the debate is set to rumble on.

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