One of the largest organic milk co-operatives in the country is now generating its own solar power, and is rolling out the technology across the region. Olivia Cooper reports

Coombe Farm is somewhat unique in the dairy sector. Not only is it commercially focused and successful, it has an important philanthropic aim to help other rural enterprises to succeed.

Set up by Andrew Warren in 1942 with financial help from another farmer, Coombe Farm near Crewkerne, Somerset, now provides the organic milk processed and packed by Yeo Valley on site. As well as providing milk for Waitrose, Coombe Farm processes organic fruit and rents yogurt production facilities to Yeo Valley.

The 440ha (1,088-acre) farm milks 350 Holstein Friesian cows, and sources organic milk from other dedicated suppliers, some of which have been helped by the AH Warren Trust.

The extensive facilities clearly have significant demand for electricity, so when the government announced the Feed-in-Tariffs for solar power generation, the farm became one of the first to install a massive in-field array of photovoltaic panels. Covering seven acres, the panels can generate up to 1MW of electricity every day, enough to meet the dairy’s processing requirements on a good day, with any excess fed into the National Grid.

“We spent a long time choosing a site in conjunction with local planning officers, so there were no objections when getting planning permission,” says manager Peter Rose. “We placed the orders for equipment in March, and started installing the frames in April. There was no need to upgrade our electricity supply, but we did need to bring in a 11,000 volt transformer. It was a race to get it up and running before the FiT levels fell after 31 July, but we got it signed off before the end of June.”

The £2.5m project should pay for itself within 13 years, and fits well with the farm’s organic principles, as well as those of its customers. “Waitrose was very keen on the solar panels because their agricultural policy is built around sustainability,” says Mr Rose. “Yeo Valley was also very supportive, and its production facilities share the benefits of renewable generation.” Coombe Farm’s own corporate and social responsibility policies cover many specific areas, including energy emissions, transport and education.

However, not content to simply generate its own electricity, Coombe Farm decided to form a joint venture with the solar provider, to form an installation company called Solar South West. “We wanted to focus on more diverse activities to support others in business,” says Mr Rose.

Solar South West, based at Coombe Farm, has already installed a number of PV arrays on local farms and commercial premises, and also offers leasing arrangements for roof space or disused areas. “We believe this area of activity is a real opportunity for agriculture.”