Renewable support needs clarity

Government support for renewables and the attitudes of planners were two hot topics at a renewable energy event in the southwest last week. Olivia Cooper reports

The government’s recent decision to review Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) for large-scale solar projects prompted a lot of uncertainty at last Thursday’s (24 February) Climate Change Trade Fair in Exeter.

With thousands of planning applications already under way, the industry was in turmoil, said Paul Cottington, environment adviser at the NFU. “People have already spent a lot of money on this.”

The review for projects over 50kW was likely to be concluded by mid-July, said Mark Letcher, consultant from Bristol-based consultant Climate Works, which urged farmers and landowners not to rush into new projects.

“If you’re thinking about large solar farms I would be cautious until we get more information. My gut feeling is that the government will get rid of support for large-scale installations and keep it for small-scale projects.”

However, with FiTs for new projects due to decrease in April next year, investors were keen to get up and running quickly. And one of the biggest stumbling blocks for potential projects was obtaining planning permission, he added. And with a new planning framework set to replace existing policy guidance, local authorities currently lacked direction.

“It’s all very unclear – they don’t know whether to use the old guidance or wait for the new framework.”

Anyone seeking to obtain planning permission should liaise with their planning authority from the start, said Janet Wallace from East Devon District Council.

“Early consultation is the key. Speak to the planning authority and every other department that might have a say in the project – such as the Environment Agency and Natural England – so you can resolve any issues before submitting your application.”

Potential investors should also check with the National Grid to see if they would have to upgrade the local network. Those considering erecting wind turbines near a hedge may need to undertake a bat survey, and should rule out possible radar disturbance with local airports.

In addition, farmers should take professional advice over likely losses of agricultural tax reliefs and the single payment, warned solicitor Sonya Bedford from Stephens & Scown. Farmers who opted to graze sheep under field-mounted solar arrays could be responsible for damage caused to the equipment. “Check any agreement first. There has been no ruling by the Rural Payments Agency as to whether you can keep your single payment for fields with solar arrays – it depends whether it is still primarily agriculture or not.”

Mark Neath, associate director at accountant Old Mill, also reminded people that Feed-in Tariffs for domestic installations were exempt from income tax, but commercial schemes were not. Domestic installations included those within the grounds of a farmhouse owned by an individual, but not a company. They must not generate significantly more power than is used in the house. Energy generated and used on a farm scale is considered commercial, and is therefore fully taxable, he said.

Solar case study

Mike Horrell has considered almost every type of renewable energy project at Netherton Farm, near Liskeard, Cornwall. Plans for an anaerobic digester, hydro-electric power, and a wind turbine all fell by the wayside.

But last August, having retired from farming, he installed 12 solar photovoltaic panels near the farmhouse.

“By this August we expect to have generated nearly 2000kWh, about half of which is exported, producing about £1000 – a return of 8-9% on investment. It’s not a lot of money, but given that it’s index-linked and income tax exempt, it’s worth doing,” he said.

He has now signed an option for a 10ha (25-acre) solar PV array producing 5MW at peak power – enough to supply all the houses in the parish. The planning application has been submitted, with the lease likely to be worth £1000/acre.

“That’s a lot better than the cows ever did, and the locals think it’s a good idea. We can produce carbon-free sheep meat from the permanent pasture. All of this is apparently what the government said it wanted; I hope it still presents an opportunity.”


Farm succession planning during the Covid-19 crisis

Register now