Solar PV breakthrough – Cornwall leads the way

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Planning permission has been granted for the UK's first purpose-built solar farm.

Cornwall, UK

Planning permission has been granted for the UK’s first purpose-built solar farm – a landmark decision that could give the green light for a wave of commercial solar power developments across the country.

Located on the south facing site of the former Wheal Jane tin mine near Truro in Cornwall, the £4 million solar farm will house around 6000 individual panels, each measuring just 1.8m x 1m and laid out on galvanised steel fixed tilt frames. It will have a peak generating capacity of 1.3MW, providing enough electricity to power 287 average Cornish homes.

The company behind this breakthrough is 35° – a new venture set up to promote, build and manage 100MW of solar photovoltaic (PV) plant through a series of individually financed projects, bringing to life the government’s recently legislated new incentives for the micro-generation of renewable energy.

35° drew heavily on the expertise of leading engineering and environmental consultancy Wardell Armstrong in successfully securing planning permission from Cornwall council. The twelve month process involved the consultancy in pre-consultation, screening and scoping, feasibility including specific studies on glint, glare and ecology, a full environmental impact assessment, planning submission, and post submission consultation.

Cornwall council, keen to see their county become the UK leader in the generation of solar energy, were supportive of the idea from the start through their natural resources team who deal with minerals and renewables applications.

The stimulus for 35° and other enterprising solar businesses is the Feed in Tariff (FiT) – a new energy policy mechanism which came into force in April 2010 as part of the government’s low carbon transition plan to meet the targets of the Climate Change Act, respond to Copenhagen commitments, reduce carbon emissions and stimulate growth in low carbon electricity.

Under FiT, businesses and individuals producing green electricity receive a generation tariff (paid by an electricity company) for everything they generate, plus an export tariff for everything they feed back to the grid – as high as 41.3p/kWh and 3p/kWh respectively in the case of small scale solar PV.

The PV technology works on the same principle as a solar powered calculator. Light falls on a panel, agitates electrons and creates a flow of DC electricity which is then put through an inverter to convert it to an AC supply which is suitable for the grid.

The Wheal Jane location – a brownfield area on the site of a former mill used by the tin mine – is the first one to be chosen by 35° and is intended as a proof of concept before further sites are developed. The grid connection is already in place, thanks to the power line from which the old mill drew its energy. While its capacity will be limited to 1.3 MW, most future sites are likely to be up to 5MW – the FiT limit.

One of the major advantages of PV solar power is its low visibility and minimal impact on the environment, with frames only around 1.6m tall. Moreover, plans are in place to landscape and enhance the area with a local grass mix to encourage and provide a natural habitat for rare species such as grass snakes, slow worms, lizards and barn owls – upgrading the site from its industrial past and turning into a safe and pleasant green area where wildlife can thrive.

With Cornwall basking in the highest irradiation levels in the UK – the most sunshine in layman’s terms – the county is likely to see many similar developments in the coming months and years, and it won’t be long before PV solar farms move northwards. Stephen McCabe from 35° sees a bright future. Stephen McCabe, Managing Director of 35 Degrees, said: “This is the first major milestone for the UK in directly harvesting the inexhaustible energy of the sun to address major issues such as energy stability and carbon reduction. It’s also the first building block in bringing a new growth industry to Cornwall and the UK. We’re excited to be leading the way in this venture.”

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