Solar farm panels are set to become a regular sight across the UK’s countryside.
The shiny panels, all neatly lined up, are popping up on fields that were once ploughed by farmers.
Typically they are situated on lower-grade agricultural land and the attraction for the owners of this type of land clearly lies in the panels’ ability to generate cash, especially as some agricultural land struggles to compete as supermarkets hammer down prices.
Project manager Frank Blaeul and business development manager Paul Holmes-Ling, from Vogt Solar, invited The News to see the work taking place to build a 27-hectare site on land off Tanners Lane, west of Newgate Lane, Fareham.
More than 150 people have been working on the 66-acre site to install 3,418 racks of panels, with 24 panels on each rack, since work started last September.
Mr Blaeul said: ‘Compared to other construction sites, the most difficult was the logistics to bring our deliveries as we can’t move because there is no spare land left. We have had some 100 lorries bringing in panels, with restrictions to not bring in the panels between certain times. That’s really hard to manage. We’ve had to create an access track to spread the material across the field and that’s also very hard.’
The panels will stay on the land for 25 years and then it will be reviewed.
Mr Holmes-Ling says all the materials, including the panels, can be recycled at the end of its life and there is very little concrete on the site, as the racks of panels are hammered like a post into the ground.
The only concrete hard standing is under a few substation bases and takes up a very small percentage of the site.
‘It arrives as lump of concrete and the can be picked up like a lump and taken away. It’s basically like a big Meccano set’ says Mr Holmes-Ling.
‘There’s nothing that can’t be recycled, it’s very simple. It’s temporary.’
All the panels are lined up facing south to get the maximise efficiency, which Mr Blaeul says is one of the reasons rooftops are not efficient for a large-scale solar farm.
‘Also maybe not everybody wants one on their roof. Every panel here is facing the perfect direction, at the perfect angle – if you look at people’s roofs they are not in the ideal place and it’s economically more expensive to put it on people’s roofs and also to maintain.
‘It’s not for every house. It can also be too heavy for a warehouse roof to cope with.’
The company plans to plant wildflowers under the panels once the site is finished.
Mr Holmes-Ling says, ‘The whole site will become a wildflower meadow, yes there are panels on it but the amount of land taken up by the panels is only the post and they are quite high from the ground and we will be planting underneath them. As it is fenced-off too, you won’t get dogs and walkers coming across it, so this area will become a nature reserve.’
With this winter’s wet weather, the site was very muddy, but Mr Holmes-Ling says this is one of the reasons the farmer was so keen to transform the use of his land.
‘Because it was such a wet field it was very hard to grow things on. At the end of its life, it can be turned back to agricultural land and you’ll find that the land has improved as grass has grown on it, it’s been given a rest, and the land will be better quality when we give it back,’ says Mr Holmes-Ling.
Once complete, the site will generate enough energy to power around 5,500 homes. It is the biggest Vogt Solar site in construction, although its largest is in South Wales and is roughly three times the size of the site in Fareham.
Vogt Solar has other sites under construction in Kent, Devon, Essex. It also has other operational sites in Kent, West Sussex, Devon, Cornwall and South Wales.
All these sites are in sunny, coastal locations.
Mr Holmes-Ling says this is one of the main reasons for picking the Fareham fields.
‘The key reasons for this site are the high radiation levels, it’s close to a grid connection, it’s a flat site and a big site and all those add up to make it a good site for solar. Out of all the sites I’ve dealt with this is probably the most perfect site.’
But what about other renewable technologies?
Mr Holmes-Ling explains, ‘You can’t compare it to wind, as you want solar in this part of the country as it’s sunny. If you look at average wind speeds here, compared to Cornwall or Northumberland, the speeds would be nowhere near. Each technology has its place.
‘What I like to get across is the right technology in the right place. This is definitely the right technology here. You couldn’t put wind turbines here because of the proximity to properties and the noise issues.
‘Another thing is, if you would like to adopt a renewable energy then it has to be as efficient as possible. As this site is so flat and has such good radiation levels it will be as efficient as it can be.’
One thing is for sure solar farms are growing in number and will be an increasing feature in our countryside.
Mr Holmes-Ling says, ‘What we need is a balance of energy provided by a mixture of nuclear, coals and renewables. There will be sites that solar fits and there will be more solar sites in the future. It’s not the answer to the whole energy problem in the UK, but it is certainly part of the solution.’
The site is one of the first in the area and caused much debate when it was proposed to Fareham Borough Council.
The original plan was for 123 acres, which was scaled back due to the strength of opposition from some parties.
There were fears that the reflection would affect planes landing at nearby Daedalus, about the health risks of living near the panels, the loss of wildlife and factors such as noise and light pollution.
One of the driving factors for such opposition was the fear that this land had been set aside as a strategic gap between Fareham and Gosport, meaning it is not allowed to be built on to prevent the two towns merging into one.
Or perhaps it was that this land, which was once free for dog walkers to stroll across, although it was private property, is now closed off by a metal fence.
Mr Holmes-Ling says he believes this was one of the main reasons for opposition.
‘They were never meant to walk on the land as it was private property so they were trespassing. There’s now a net improvement in the footpath as we have made footpaths that do exist with a wide track. We have improved the rights of way by installing proper, dedicated footpaths; before it was a narrow track and now it’s a 5m wide path that people can actually walk down.’
Mr Holmes-Ling adds, ‘Normally we don’t have as much anti for any of our sites. The issue here was we are on the edge of a town and there wasn’t any other solar farms that people could go and see. In Kent there are many sites that people could see and think “yes, I don’t really mind solar”.’
Either way the solar farm in Fareham has paved the way for other applications and the largest solar farm in England, big enough to provide energy for 11,000 homes on 200 acres of land in Southwick, was approved in December.
Gosport and Fareham Friends of the Earth supported the project and held a demonstration outside the Civic Offices in Fareham before the decision meeting.
Tim Pratt, from Friends of the Earth, said that solar energy was needed in order to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels.
He said: ‘We want to see Fareham playing its part in the transition to the non-carbon energy which is so badly needed.’
Norman Pasley, also from Friends of the Earth, said: ‘We support the development.
‘While some people are dismissive, or unsure, or admit they haven’t thought about it, other people understand that solar energy is clean energy, and, on balance, this solar farm makes sense.’
The group also collected a petition in support of the application with more than 60 names.
September 2012 Plans made public for 123-acre site in Fareham, which would make it the largest in the UK providing power for 14,000 homes.
October 2012 Public speak out in support saying it would protect the strategic gap at first public consultation
November 2012 Plan submitted to Fareham Borough Council
December 2012 Council extends comment period due to amount of reaction both for and against
February 2013 Plan is due to go before councillors for a decision but Vogt Solar pulls it at the last minute
June 2013 Plans scaled down to 66 acres and public consultations held
September 2013 Plans passed by Fareham Borough Council
October 2013 Work starts on site
March 2014 Construction on site is due to finish
April 2014 Planting of wildflowers and ecological works