Berkshire project owners to target water utilities with scheme to cut energy bill
They have become a familiar sight on rooftops and fields across Britain. Now, solar panels are set to start appearing in a new and surprising location: floating on reservoirs.
Britain’s first ever floating solar panel project has just been built in Berkshire, in a scheme its developer claims will act as a blueprint for the technology to be installed at hundreds of sites across the country.
The 800-panel green energy project was installed earlier this month on a reservoir at Sheeplands Farm, a 300-acre soft fruit farm near Wargrave.
The scheme is eligible for renewable electricity subsidies, which are funded by energy bill-payers.
Its owner, Mark Bennett, says that floating panels are even more lucrative than solar farms on fields because no earnings from valuable agricultural land have to be sacrificed to make space for them.
Mr Bennett has signed a deal with French firm Ciel et Terre, which developed the floating technology, to distribute it in the UK through his newly-formed company Floating Solar UK.
The technology, which is already being used at far larger scale in Japan, involves solar panels mounted on plastic floats, forming a giant pontoon.
Mr Bennett said he has already had strong interest in the technology for use elsewhere, including from major water companies.
He said he thought the development was more aesthetically pleasing than panels on fields. However, his target market was “functional reservoirs” used for drinking water or irrigation, rather than scenic lakes.
“We are speaking to big utility companies, to agricultural companies – anyone with an unused body of water. The potential is remarkable,” he said.
The 800 panel project is 200kw capacity and spans roughly an acre but Mr Bennett said future projects could “very feasibly” be as much as 100 times bigger.
The Sheeplands Farm development was installed at a cost of £250,000. Mr Bennett said he expected to earn £20,500 a year in consumer-funded subsidies for the power it produces over the next 20 years, while he will also save about £24,000 a year by no longer having to buy the power from the Grid.
The project could therefore pay for itself within 6 years and should deliver a “minimum profit” of more than £620,000 over 20 years.
John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a group critical of subsidy costs, said floating solar panels appeared to be “an incredibly lucrative way of getting subsidies”. “When subsidies are committed to the market, all sorts of strange things happen,” he said.
Ministers have moved to tighten up rules over the spread of solar farms on fields amid concerns their proliferation is blighting parts of the countryside. A key subsidy scheme for the biggest solar farms, which involve tens of thousands of panels each, is due to be scrapped from April.
Neil Sinden, policy and campaigns director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “We welcome alternative sources of green energy, but any potential solar development should meet certain planning criteria – whether on land or on water.
“Visual impact on the landscape, as well as biodiversity and tranquillity, are all important considerations, both with the solar panels themselves and associated infrastructure such as grid connections and substations.
“Water-based solar developments clearly obviate concerns over the impact on agricultural land use, which should be an important factor in decisions on solar development. And developers should also be required to ensure the ecological quality of the water, which could help improve polluted water.”