The rush to get large-scale solar projects completed ahead of the 1 August reduction in Feed-in Tariffs means almost 90MW of agricultural solar power capacity has been installed, according to an NFU estimate.

The union initially estimated that at least 16 large-scale solar electricity projects had been completed on agricultural land by 1 August, with capacity to produce 46MW (59MW including brownfield sites). But this has been increased to include other less well publicised large ground- and roof-mounted projects and a number of others that are expected to be enlarged during an unintended “legislative grace period”.

By comparison, OFGEM estimated that as of June 2011, Britain’s solar-generating capacity was about 122MW, mostly deployed on domestic rooftops.

“It clearly demonstrates the potential of land-based renewables and how farmers could respond if, for example, given sufficient incentives to invest in other opportunities such as on-farm biogas or perennial energy crops,” NFU chief renewable energy adviser Jonathan Scurlock said.

South-west England had seen the greatest concentration of solar farms so far, but the East Midlands region had managed a close second place, he added. “Farmers have got firmly behind the renewable energy march, helped by the Feed-in Tariffs introduced in April last year.”

Closing the loophole

Dr Scurlock understood that a few sites were unable to complete their final planned capacity before 1 August, but said they may be able to use a “legislative grace period” to finish construction by September or possibly October and still get the higher Feed-in Tariff rate.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change is aware of this technical “loophole” where some large-scale solar developers intend to use provisions in the FiTs legislation on the accreditation of extensions to installations undertaken within 12 months of the original installation to claim higher tariff rates beyond 1 August.

For example, under current legislation, it could be possible for a developer who managed to install just 100kW prior to 1 August to extend capacity to 5MW within 12 months and be eligible for the pre-1 August tariff rate for the extended installation.

“Our view is that this is inconsistent with the FiTs policy following the fast-track review and prolongs the risks to the FiTs spending envelope that the fast-track review was intended to address,” DECC said. “We consider that there is a strong case for urgent action to address this risk.”

DECC has published a short consultation on plans to close the loophole, which ends on 31 August 2011. “Subject to the responses received to this consultation we are aiming to introduce these changes as soon as possible by amending Article 15 of the FiTs Order.”

More information can be found at www.decc.gov.uk, click on consultations.