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Solar PV farms - are they good for the UK?

Posted by Cathy Debenham on 25 November 2010 at 3:34 pm

Whether large scale solar PV farms are relevant for the long term in the UK was one the first questions asked at RegenSW's Question Time debate this week.

No, was the short answer from Sarah Rhodes, the head of land-based renewables at DECC, although she put it less baldly than that. Due to the comprehensive spending review she said, the Government has to rein back their ambitions: "The first place we're looking to do that is large scale PV. It is very expensive compared to other technologies, and shouldn't be allowed to distort the domestic market."

Ms Rhodes was keen to point out that there would not be retrospective changes to the feed-in tariff, and that projects already receiving funding will continue to do so. DECC is "trying to restrict some of the ambition in large scale PV".

Other panellists had varying views on the issue. Scottish and Southern chief executive, Ian Marchant said that solar PV in the UK makes sense in the built environment, but that it doesn't make sense to use it in place of a scarce resource such as land.

Jonathan Porritt pointed out that if we had a supergrid across Europe and different countries played to their strengths, the UK would be unlikely to pick up any subsidy for PV at all. However, he added: "One concern is that England suffers from a credibility problem - people don't believe that renewable energy is capable of doing anything other than generating a little on the side. I would be happy to see some large scale solar to demonstrate that it is possible to people."

Also in favour of large scale solar PV, "for democratisation" was Martin Wright, managing director of Marine Current Turbines. Pointing out that we need a growth industry, he expressed disappointment that the feed-in tariffs will benefit existing industries in Germany and Japan, rather than growing new industries here in the UK.

Given Greg Barker's recent warning that the feed-in tariff wasn't intended to support these large scale installations, there appeared to be a feeling in the room that a rebalancing of the feed-in tariff to exclude solar PV in the 2-5MW range would not be unreasonable. Whether that comes before the expected review in 2012 is anyone's guess.

Photo David Blaikie

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