energy technology

What a solar farm can look like in 2020

Earlier this week I wrote about the ethically compromised new ‘documentary’ Planet of the Humans. The narrator visits an embarassingly inefficient solar farm, and treating it as typical, writes off the potential of solar power. The film also suggests that solar panels may only last ten years, that they don’t necessarily replace fossil fuels, and that clean energy is just another extension of consumer capitalism.

Let’s look instead at what a real solar farm can look like in 2020.

York, in the North of England, might not seem like the most promising place for a solar farm. But this is where Gridserve have built what is Britain’s most advanced solar farm. This one isn’t typical either, but I’m writing about the best in order to show what’s possible.

The York solar park has 90,000 installed solar panels. These are bifacial panels, which means they can harvest sunlight on the underside as well. Light bouncing back off the ground adds to the direct sunlight, dramatically increasing the efficiency. Bifacial panels are increasingly common on solar farms, especially in southern latitudes where there is lots of ambient light.

How much a bifacial panel catches depends on what is underneath. Placing the panels over sand or water can increase reflectivity. Here they have another idea. Various solar farms have planted wildflowers underneath their panels, and Gridserve have taken the concept a little further. According to a detailed case study in Power PV Tech magazine, they commissioned researchers to identify the most reflective pollinating plants they could find, and they will be experimenting with different combinations. With beehives on site and acres of wildflowers, this low grade agricultural land will be producing honey and encouraging wildlife as well as generating electricity.

York is also the first solar farm in Britain with single-axis tracking. The panels tilt over the course of the day, in order to optimise the amount of light they catch. Most solar farms face south, which means peak production occurs in the middle of the day. Tilting panels are able to generate more in the mornings and the evenings, which evens out production and directs more electricity into the grid at the times when it is needed.

Solar generates nothing at night, but this site has 30MW of storage, so you’re covered.

Which billionaire energy giant is profiting from this scheme, you may ask. The answer is that the solar farm is owned by Warrington Council. It provides all the electricity they need, making them the first local authority in the country to be able to provide 100% of their own green energy. They’ve got a big headstart on that net zero by 2030 goal they announced last year.

Not only will the farm deliver all of the council’s electricity, there will be a large surplus to sell into the grid and support council spending. It is expected to deliver an operating surplus of £150 million over the next 30 years. This is all without subsidies, by the way.

To zoom out from this particular solar plant for a moment, another section of the aforementioned film features an expert complaining that countries that are building renewable energy aren’t actually displacing fossil fuels. They don’t name any examples and while it’s true in some places where energy use is still growing, in mature economies there is a genuine transition underway.

In 2012 Britain’s electricity grid was running on 43% coal and 7% renewable energy. Last month it ran on 44% renewable energy and no coal at all.

None of this is a techno-fix, by the way. Renewable energy isn’t a straight swap for fossil fuels. There are plenty of fair questions about materials and whether we can meet transport and heating needs too. But if anyone tells you that solar is intermittent, or inefficient, or taxpayer subsidised, or a corporate scam, or whatever their excuse might be, now you know that it doesn’t need to be that way.

7 comments

  1. Have you seen this Useful report – Behaviour Change, Public Engagement and Net Zero by Dr Richard Carmichael makes the case for intergration of PV solar with electric vehicles and heat pumps? But I think the smart meter technology is not yet quite up to maximising the benefits (certainly not here in Northern Ireland)

    1. The smart meter roll-out has been pretty chaotic in England too, with quite a bit of unwarranted suspicion of the whole project. Hard to say if that’s held us back yet, but it certainly will if we don’t hurry it up. I’ll look up that report you mention.

  2. It’s very encouraging to see this example that follows Chris Goodall’s recommendation (and expectation) from ‘What we need to do now’, that much of new generation should be locally/community owned. Having worked with Westmil Farm wind and solar coops, I can see the great potential that community-controlled renewables offer. Lots of benefits beyond the important economic ones. Hopefully this will show many others what’s possible!

    1. Yes, renewable energy can be decentralisation of power in more ways than one. I look forward to a government that values that, rather than seeing it as a threat to commercial interests.

      1. Maybe the local authority dimension can help drive this more strongly? If local authorities can see it as a way to reduce their costs AND develop an income stream, that could be a powerful driver.

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