PLANS are under way to establish Scotland’s first solar farms at sites in the Central Belt and the Highlands, it has emerged.
Scotland on Sunday has learned that a Glasgow-based solar panel developer, TGC Renewables, is in talks with Scottish farms to set up two test sites following successful trials in the south of England.
Although Scotland enjoys fewer hours of sunshine than Devon and Cornwall, developers insist that longer daylight hours and microclimates linked to the jet stream make large-scale solar projects viable north of the Border.
It is claimed that solar farms, made up of rows of shiny, rectangular panels “planted” just a few metres above the ground in fields and angled towards the sun, will blend into the landscape far more easily than wind turbines, which have provoked widespread opposition. The photovoltaic panels capture the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity.
Roy Amner, development director at TGC Renewables, said: “A solar farm is effectively a power station in a field, with low visual impact and no noise, unlike wind turbines. They are built on south-facing, sloping land and look like silvery blue fields instead of green ones.
“People constantly say to us these things can’t work north of Birmingham, but they do. Scotland has longer daylight hours, which compensate for the lower intensity of the sun, and microclimates because of the jet stream, for example near Nairn and Tiree, which is why there are palm trees there.”
The first solar farms in Scotland are expected to be located in the Central Belt, near to existing power lines, though another potential spot has been identified as far north as Nairn. A typical 5MW solar farm would be ten hectares, enough to power just over 1,000 homes.
News of plans to bring solar power to Scotland on a large scale comes days after the Scottish Government announced a new target to meet half of Scotland’s electricity needs from renewable sources by 2015, leading to its overall aim of becoming 100 per cent renewable by 2020.
While there is no official target for solar, TGC Renewables has set itself a goal of producing one gigawatt of power UK-wide from solar by 2020 – the equivalent to the output of one nuclear power station.
Meanwhile, a rival Glasgow green energy company, UKFM Renewables, has initiated talks with the National Farmers Union of Scotland to discuss forming an alliance to develop solar and other clean power schemes on farmland.
Solar farms could generate an estimated £14,000 per acre per year for farmers, providing a valuable second income for many who are struggling after extreme rainfall destroyed a number of crops over the summer.
David Chapman, managing director of UKFM Renewables, said: “Not all farmers want to give up their land, it’s more the farmers that are feeling the pinch. A lot of crop farmers are having a hard time with all the poor weather, and they are starting to look at photovoltaic farms and other renewables options.
“We are talking to the NFU Scotland about solar farms in Scotland, as well as more traditional solar on rooftops to power dairies for example and other renewable options.”
NFU Scotland spokesman Bob Carruth confirmed that growing numbers of cash-strapped members were considering renewables to boost their income and green credentials for sales.
He said: “I think given the interest in renewables across the board now farmers are more open-minded about looking at a range of options, including solar.”
Dr Richard Dixon, WWF Scotland director, welcomed the idea. He said: “I think there’s a role for a limited amount of solar on a large scale, like these farms, but I think they will bring their own issues. If a solar farm is near an area where lots of people like walking they will probably object to seeing lots of shiny things in fields, but they are probably easier to be hidden in the landscape than wind turbines.”
Anti-wind farm campaigner Communities Against Turbines Scotland spokesman Graham Lang said: “Farmers have acres and acres of polytunnels which don’t enhance the landscape but they produce food. Photovoltaic panels on that sort of scale would be quite damaging, not as damaging as wind farms and turbines, but they would have an impact and we don’t know what the effect on the environment of covering large acreage with these panels is.”
Falling costs and financial incentives have seen the number of people installing solar panels on their homes in Scotland rocket.
Before the UK Government introduced a feed-in tariff paying homeowners to produce power only around 100 Scottish homes had solar panels. Now there are more than 21,000 homes with photovoltaic panels, though the future of the payments is currently uncertain.
Industry body Scottish Renewables said solar power was in the very early stages commercially after the first major solar project for an energy park on industrial land at Dunbar in East Lothian was given planning permission earlier this year.
Fife Council welcomed the idea of parks instead of farms. Robin Presswood, senior manager in business and strategy at Fife Council, said: “We would want to focus on using brownfield sites rather than countryside locations. A lot of former coal mine sites would probably be a good location for this type of thing.”