Massive solar farms planned to treble energy generated from sun in UK
A £40 million network of "sun farm" solar power stations could be rolled out across parts of the Westcountry.
Backers of the plans say the facilities would treble the amount of energy generated from the sun in the UK.
Ten sites are planned for locations across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, with the first being built on a 15-acre site between St Kew and St Mabyn in North Cornwall. It is hoped, subject to planning permission, that it will start generating power in April 2011.
Jon Vidler, project co-ordinator for Benbole Energy Farm (BEF), which is behind the scheme, said if everything goes to plan seven other "silicon vineyards" will be rolled out across Cornwall, with two others on the Isles of Scilly. In total they would generate 20MW of electricity, enough to power 10,000 homes.
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"We are trying to make this a worthy project for the whole of Cornwall," he said.
"Apart from the panels themselves, everything else will be Cornish-made.
He added: "Cornwall, with its abundance of energy resources, has a history of pioneering new technologies and industries, from the days of trading tin and coal to installing the first commercial windfarm in the country in the early 1990s. Cornwall's optimum environment makes it the default choice to be the national hub for the technology that is set to bring the UK's energy mix into the 21st century."
At present, the UK produces just 10MW of solar power. The farms, if all 10 are completed, will generate 20MW, enough to power 10,000 homes.
BEF is working with Penzance-based Renewable Energy Cooperative (R-ECO) to specify design and install the 2MW solar photovoltaic (PV) farm in North Cornwall. The company said each panel stands no-more than 2m high, which it hopes will allow it to avoid the sort of objections raised to wind farms in the South West.
Mr Vidler said the company hoped that a series of smaller farms would allow local communities to have a stake in the schemes, providing power for local homes as well as for the national grid.
Interest in solar power is growing, especially since the former Labour government introduced "feed-in tariffs in April, a 25-year scheme that pays generators of renewable energy for every unit of electricity generated and makes it more attractive to investors.
The firm also has aspirations to go further, to address a lack of renewables manufacturing in the UK.
"After the fifth project we hope to have enough money to open a manufacturing plant in Cornwall," he said.
"But the whole concept (of small local solar power farms) can be run up to the top of Scotland."
The project was praised by Regen SW, the renewable energy agency for the South West.
"With its high levels of solar radiation, Cornwall is the best place in the country for solar PV, and it's very encouraging to now see a number of major projects coming forward," said Merlin Hyman, Regen SW's chief executive.
"This general change in direction is very encouraging, and it will provide cutting-edge new jobs in industries of the future. It's one of a number of steps forward that must be taken if we're serious about moving away from our reliance on limited fossil fuels towards clean, sustainable, locally-sourced energy in the South West."
Planning is also underway on a £15 million solar park, covering between 20 and 40 acres, to be built on council-owned land close to RAF St Mawgan and Newquay Airport.
The park will be used to power council facilities, including the airport, and produce 5MW of power through a series of static solar panels, suspended horizontally in the field, and used to harness the sun's energy.
Cornwall Council's environmental experts, who are behind the project, hope development on the first solar farm of its kind in the country will be completed within two years.
It is hoped the solar farm would pay for itself within a decade, creating revenue for other council services.
A shift away from wind farms in the drive for renewable energy could help ease tensions in the battle between the apparent need to combat climate change and fears over the impact on the countryside, which has created divisions in the Westcountry.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has said it would be better for solar panels to be placed in urban areas, but that they could be acceptable in some rural areas, depending on their impact on the landscape.
Its Cornish branch has already called for a moratorium on the development of wind farms in the Westcountry which it fears are wreaking "irrevocable harm" on the natural environment.
The Western Morning News reported in February how the group's new policy statement stated: "The environment of Cornwall is unique and highly appreciated.
"It attracts many visitors to the county and is a major economic strength."