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How a solar farm in Kent could bring a new dawn for renewable energy

Experts
are getting excited about a proposed solar farm in the southeast of
England and what it could mean for a future without fossil fuels

Sunrise kingdom: at midday on 30 June, solar power supplied 30 per cent of the UK’s electricity
Sunrise kingdom: at midday on 30 June, solar power supplied 30 per cent of the UK’s electricity

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The largest solar power
plant ever proposed in the UK will be reviewed by the secretary of
state within the next six months. Cleve Hill solar farm will occupy the
north coast of Kent and, if built, provide up to 350MW (megawatts) of
generating capacity.

The plan is for Cleve Hill to generate the lowest cost
electricity on the UK network without needing subsidies to stay afloat.
There have been subsidy free solar installations before, but nothing
like Cleve Hill’s 1,000 acre development. The plant will also include
battery storage – giving operators the option of storing energy when the
price of electricity is low and selling when it’s high.

So why is this such a landmark moment for the UK’s
electricity supply? Well, there are now nearly a million solar panels in
the UK, which includes everything from those mounted on roofs to farms
occupying entire fields.

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The rate of deployment has waxed and waned over the last
10 years – largely determined by the level of subsidy the government was
willing to offer. When subsidies were high, the installation rate grew
exponentially, with the peak number of installations doubling every few
months. When subsidies fell, installation rates plummeted.

The government has so far overseen solar power growth by
controlling subsidies. This boom and bust model meant companies failed
and installers lost their jobs in the bad times, and companies were
created or changed business models in the good times.

Today, the installation rate is very low because there is
virtually no subsidy and it’s very hard to make money out of solar.
However, Cleve Hill could show that money can be made without subsidy,
and where one project goes others will follow. This could be the moment
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Small and large-scale solar power

When we at Sheffield Solar, a research group based
in the University of Sheffield, started researching the impact of solar
energy on the UK electricity grid back in 2010, we wondered what would
happen when solar power generation became so cheap that the government
couldn’t control the growth of installation anymore via subsidies and
incentives.

Cleve Hill seems to mark the moment when solar energy
becomes self-reliant. But maybe it’s not so simple. Cleve Hill makes
financial sense because it’s so big. But big comes with implications.

Some of the public support for energy generated by
photovoltaics (PV), the technology that converts sunlight into
electricity, comes from its easy integration into the built environment.
Solar panels on roofs make sense to the public because electricity
generation is happening at the point of use. Solar farms make sense to
investors because they are cheaper to instal per unit of electricity but
also bigger – so finance can be accessed in larger chunks and investors
can make more money.

If Cleve Hill signals the start of subsidy free solar – but
only for huge systems that take up vast swathes of countryside – what
does that mean for solar roofs? Can global growth in solar generation
reduce the costs of rooftop systems so we start to see a balance of
large and small systems being installed without subsidy?

Cleve Hill has to get agreed at the highest level of
government, and has to be developed with input from local authorities
and electricity network operators – it can be planned into the national
infrastructure. Subsidy free rooftop solar would be far less controlled.
This could be a big problem – or perhaps a golden solution.

A green energy windfall

The UK has benefited this year from an unusually sunny
summer. In June and early July, PV generation peaked at more than 9GW
(gigawatts) each day for a week. At midday on Saturday 30 June, solar
supplied 30 per cent of the national demand for electricity. If that day
had also been windy then a further 30 per cent could have come from
wind. There have been several days in this period when 50 per cent of UK
energy demand has been met with wind and solar.

Britain also has a 7GW nuclear power capability that can’t
really be switched off. This combination of nuclear, wind and solar
means that on several occasions this year the contribution from gas and
other fossil fuels has fallen to about 20 per cent of the national
demand.

Imagine if subsidy free solar is a real possibility and solar
installations were to double in number over the next few years to
create a 25GW peak capacity. If these new systems were rooftop then they
would be embedded deep within the electricity network at points where
there is high electricity demand – although there would still be a
problem with balancing supply and demand. We’d also need to know where
all the energy was coming from – rooftop solar is hard to track and
measure.

Cleve Hill, and other large-scale solar facilities, are
controversial because of their potential environmental impact – the
lowest-cost installations will always involve finding huge areas of land
that can be exploited cheaply, and there will always be an
environmental cost in construction.

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They also introduce problems for the network operators
because they create large and uncontrollable power flows, according to
the weather. However, from a grid control point of view, a 350MW solar
farm with a battery store is the perfect solution – the power flows will
be monitored and easy to predict because any additional generation will
be stored onsite.

So maybe there is no conflict between solar farms and solar
roofs after all. Instead of a future dominated by one or the other
approach, perhaps we’ll see subsidy free solar farms to start with; and
as costs drop further, and there aren’t any sensible solar farm
locations left, rooftop deployment will become economically viable
again.

What is certain is that if Cleve Hill can make money without
subsidy in 2019 then a low carbon future that includes a large solar
contribution looks almost inevitable.

Alastair Buckley is a senior lecturer in organic
electronics at the University of Sheffield. This article first appeared
on TheConversation.com 

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