A green electricity initiative that promised big returns for energy producers has led to hundreds of acres of countryside disappearing beneath solar panels in the past few months.
Developers have been busy installing the panels on dozens of greenfield sites across the south of England in a rush to meet a government deadline and reap the rewards of vastly inflated prices for the electricity they produce. The Feed-In Tariff scheme, launched in April last year, promised to pay four times the going rate for electricity generated by solar power for 25 years.
Investors realised that meant an annual return on their money of more than 15 per cent. Developers had a deadline of August 1 to get their schemes approved and up and running before the amount paid for solar-generated electricity by the National Grid fell back in line with other forms of energy. This led to a flurry of development that has given rise to about 20 “solar farms”, covering an estimated 200 acres.
Residents, who initially welcomed the green initiative, have been stunned by the speed of the construction, with some 30-acre sites springing up weeks after planning permission was granted.
Until earlier this year Robin Smith had an unspoilt view of the Somerset Levels from his home in the village of Puriton, near Bridgwater. Now he looks out on 30 acres of solar panels on 10ft high mounts a mile long. “It is blanket desecration of the countryside,” he said. “I feel very sad that it is just for people lining their coffers.”
The scheme promised such good returns that companies from China, Germany and the US rushed to cash in. In 2010, there were five solar farms generating 60 megawatts of electricity. There are now at least 20 schemes generating five times as much.
The incentive is easy to see: the Government agreed to pay 29.3p per watt of solar electricity, which would normally by worth 8.5p. Ministers realised that they had triggered a gold rush and closed the scheme from August 1. Developments had to be connected to the National Grid — not completed — by this date, in order to qualify.
Reza Shaybani, chairman of the British Photovoltaic Association, the UK solar power industry’s trade body, said: “All of the investors rushed into the UK hoping for solar power to be a new pot of gold, so to speak. It was a very lucrative deal. The UK feeding tariff was set extremely generously, giving return on investment in some cases of 12 to 16 per cent.