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James Stephen: Solar power goes onto the back burner

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: May 28, 2014

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The rush to create big solar farms may be curtailed by another switch in official policy.

Consultation on changes to the subsidy system for solar projects of more than 5MW capacity – which would equate to a site of about 30 acres – was announced last week by the Government. Originally it was planned that the current subsidy system which involves Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) would be phased out by 2017 but the latest proposal is to close the ROCs scheme for large developments from March 31, 2015.

I suspect the main reason is the huge expansion in solar development has caused public support to dwindle as these projects have started popping up in the countryside. It has been significantly easier to obtain planning consent for solar parks than for wind turbines and as a result the scale of solar developments across southern Britain in particular has taken people by surprise, hence the Government's latest consultation.

After March 31 large solar projects will have to bid competitively for funding against all other forms of renewable energy production through a scheme called "Contracts for Difference" (CfD). As solar production is generally regarded as one of the less efficient forms of renewable energy production, it remains to be seen how well solar energy will compete for funding through this new scheme.

This also demonstrates that renewable energy, which is heavily reliant on subsidy, is a risky business to be involved in because the government has a track record of chopping and changing its policy.

These changes may be as a result of public pressure or the realisation the level of subsidy being offered is inappropriate, but for whatever reason this makes planning a renewable energy project very difficult.

It seems likely that if the ROCs are removed in March next year we will see a headlong rush to build solar parks on all the sites which are capable of being developed over the next eight months. So don't be surprised to see a significant increase.

I am sure many readers will be pleased to hear that it is likely the development of large scale solar parks may now be curtailed but equally one cannot help wondering where our electricity will come from in five years as many coal-fired power stations are being decommissioned. Fracking is likely to be the next big source of energy, so perhaps all the opponents of solar parks in the South West need to be careful what they wish for. Maybe a few more wind turbines would not be a bad idea after all.

James Stephen is partner in charge of Carter Jonas' South West rural team

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