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From black to green

The headlines talk of ‘solar farms’ or, more lyrically, ‘sunshine farms.’ But plans to develop large solar arrays at two former Nottinghamshire coal mines could be scuppered by the Government’s new review of Feed-in Tariff payments.

Proposals to build solar arrays at Gedling and Welbeck colleries have been put forward by mO3 Power, a PV park developer based in Guildford, Surrey whose directors include the entrepreneur Tom Singh OBE, founder of the New Look high street chain. The company aspires to be Europe’s largest independent power producer.

As proposed, the 30-acre Gedling array would produce electricity for 1,300 homes in the area while construction and maintenance would, presumably, generate some local employment. Mo3 held local consultations over its plans at the former collieries and says that the response was positive at both. But earlier this year the Government suddenly announced a fast-track review of its Feed-in Tariff payment system, saying that it intended to slash payments for the electricity produced from large renewable installations over 50kW capacity, so effectively withdrawing the financial incentive to build and operate schemes such as solar farms.

While the FiT review has been welcomed by those who balk at a perceived ‘gold rush’ by disinterested speculators into renewable energy, the large renewable developers have predictably reacted with dismay – and have now turned to the law to get their way. In April this year 11 solar firms, including mO3 Power, went to the High Court to seek a judicial review of the Government’s decision while arguing that withdrawing financial incentives at this early stage will cause the abandonment of hundreds of large renewable energy schemes and undermine the Government’s own strategic plans for the creation of more green jobs and renewable energy. They point out that changing the subsidy rules will effectively strangle the nascent large-scale solar development industry at birth at a time when the UK needs to catch up with European neighbours such as Germany where solar farms are a common sight.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change argues, in turn, that changing the FiT system will prevent large developments from consuming subsidies which should be going to small renewable generators at homes and businesses. Commentators maintain that the truth of the matter is that DECC has lost the argument with HM Treasury, which has wanted to put a cap on FiT spending since the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The result of all is this is that mO3 Power’s plans for Gedling and Welbeck are now on hold and no planning applications for its proposed solar farms in Nottinghamshire have been submitted.

“The problem is that they just cannot be financed at the rate the Government is proposing,” mO3 operations director Adam Oliver told GreenTech Business Network. “At the new rates you might as well put your money in a low-interest savings account.” Oliver admitted that if DECC was allowed to proceed with its tariff reductions then this would bring an end to the mO3’s solar farm plans.

Commenting on the Government’s rationale for reducing FiT tariffs to favour small-scale electricity schemes, he said FiTs had been seen by some in Government as a tool to promote Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea. “They saw FiTs as a Big Society option because you would have thousands of domestic roofs producing electricity,” he said. “Our argument is that FiTs is a financial incentive to reduce carbon emissions and has got nothing to do with the Big Society.”

Whatever the outcome of any judicial review, the future productivity of both Welbeck and Gedling colliery sites could still be based on renewable energy. At Gedling, the Edwinstowe-based Alkane Energy has applied for permission to tap the mine’s methane to generate electricity over 25 years while Welbeck, where coal production only ceased last year, has already been linked to various possible new energy schemes including an anaerobic digester.       

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© Nottingham Science City 2011

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