We are delighted to report that we signed the construction contract for Ray Valley Solar ground mount solar park last month, and the project is due to be completed in September 2021.
Ray Valley Solar will generate over 18GWh of clean electricity each year, enough to power over 6,000 homes. Read more about the project here.
Why this journey?
As a society, we are moving away from the traditional centralised energy generation model encapsulated and embodied by Didcot power station to a more decentralised model where energy generation in the form of renewables is located closer to demand, where it is used, and where there is less infrastructure, cost and waste in the transmission of energy.
Oxfordshire councils have declared a climate emergency, and there are growing calls for a transition to a zero carbon energy system. We have a county target to reduce our carbon emissions by 50% over the next nine years. To meet this challenging target, we need to increase our renewable energy capacity six-fold. Ray Valley Solar will take Oxfordshire a step closer to achieving this aim, generating over 197 GWh of clean energy a year and saving approximately 4,300 tonnes CO2 from being emitted.
In Oxfordshire, solar is our most abundant resource by far. We are a landlocked county with minimal wind resource, and the potential for hydro in the county has been fully explored. Therefore, we are reliant on large-scale solar projects to helping us reach those ambitious targets.
Why not use rooftops?
We have 46 brilliantly performing rooftop solar installations at the Low Carbon Hub, and so why don’t we just continue with this successful programme? The answer to this is three-fold:
- A dwindling supply of host roofs – we are running out of host organisations who can commit to the roof lease to buy the energy produced by the solar panels that we install for the approximate 20 years we need to make the project financially viable.
- No more Feed-in-Tariff – with no Feed-in Tariff and a lack of other incentives for local generation (mainly due to changes in legislation), it is harder for projects to be financially viable.
- Awkward system – Unfortunately, the current planning system does not mandate the best use of the extensive new roofs currently being built across the county. Although the solar industry is changing to adapt to the legislation and make smaller projects on existing roofs more financially viable, there’s not much we can do about the supply of available sites to meet the 2030 target.
We’d love to see more rooftop solar projects in Oxfordshire and we will continue to explore opportunities where we can, but we also need to look towards large scale solar projects.
Exploring ground mount solar
Based on this clear picture of where to go, the Low Carbon Hub projects team began to explore what local opportunities for these types of projects there might be. We soon received information about ten potential schemes (with community involvement) across the county.
These are not the only schemes in the county – it has been encouraging to see even more potential out there!
We don’t anticipate that all of these will become Low Carbon Hub projects, but what is becoming clear is that there is an appetite for community ownership and community engagement with this type of project.
If all of these projects reach completion (which is quite a realistic prospect), we will already reach 20% of the 2030 target mentioned previously.
What makes a project viable?
For a ground mount solar project to be successful, we need to ensure three main things:
- Site and consents – The field needs to be close to the point of connection to the grid, where the grid itself can cope with a significant increase in the generation coming online at that point. This is not something that the grid is designed for, and too much costly upgrade work to put new generation onto the grid pushes project costs beyond viability. The location also needs to be acceptable in planning terms and have strong support in the local community.
- Secure and long-term revenue – The majority of ground mount solar projects need a demonstrable secure agreement to sell the generated energy in place before they are constructed.
- Favourable finance terms or investment – It is essential to demonstrate the revenue prospects to gain the interest of potential funders.
Ray Valley Solar
Ray Valley Solar will be a new solar park located near Bicester. Planning permission has been secured for the 95-acre site and will comprise 35,900 solar panels with battery storage also approved. Engie Fabricom will carry out the project build, and Low Carbon Limited will manage it.
Ray Valley Solar will:
- Be the largest community-owned solar park in the UK
- Generate 18 GWh of clean green electricity every year, enough to power over 6,000 homes
- Provide £13 million community benefit funding over the project lifetime.
The panels used at Ray Valley Solar will be bi-facial panels, which means that they have clear glass on both the sky-facing and ground-facing sides. This is a relatively new technology, enabling the panels to capture some of the reflected light that bounces up off the grass below whilst the project is in operation. Over the course of a year, this increases generation by 25% over a standard panel.
Constructing a solar park is of course a significant intervention to a landscape. Although the site is between a Ministry of Defence site and another solar park, we want to ensure that Ray Valley is an exemplar of how a solar park can be realised in this kind of context. That is also what our stakeholders told us. All 80 respondents to a survey we put out about approaching ground mount solar indicated very reassuring and overwhelmingly positive support. Many also wanted to know what exemplar land and biodiversity management around a solar park could and should look like.
Currently, the site is a large, flat open field punctuated only by a few hedges, one or two ditches and grazing sheep at times. We have a partnership with the landowner, who will continue to graze the area once construction is complete. There is 8m of space between each of the panels allowing access to open grass for sheep. The ground is about 1m from the bottom of the panels, allowing plenty of space for sheep to walk under the panels to have uninterrupted grazing across the site.
A detailed landscaping strategy is in development to ensure we are doing the utmost to maximise biodiversity in the area. We are also exploring opportunities to work with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT).
What does this mean for Low Carbon Hub?
Ray Valley Solar will massively increase the Low Carbon Hub’s capacity to produce clean energy. In 2018/19 our total portfolio of renewable energy projects generated almost 4GWh. Ray Valley Solar will increase that five-fold , bringing our total generation capacity to 21GWh.
We absolutely recognise the significance of that growth for the Low Carbon Hub, and we’ve been approaching this next step in our development with caution as well as enthusiasm. We have retained the services of Low Carbon Limited, who have a great deal of experience in projects of this scale having realised projects that power approximately 100,000 houses. They will be our project managers for the park until it’s built and then will manage the operation and maintenance of the site once commissioned. They have a well-aligned ethos with us, and the collaboration to date has been fruitful and positive.
The next challenge
£1.5 billion is spent on energy in Oxfordshire every year –most going to foreign fossil fuel companies. This is an arresting figure and represents a significant amount of money leaving the county each year.
Much of that spend is from large institutions that are our most significant energy consumers. What if we could keep some of that energy spend in the county to benefit the local economy?
We’ve been working to find ways to connect their energy consumption directly with local generators. Rather than a direct connection, this would be a contractual connection, but this is becoming a pretty well-trodden path in energy markets to have power purchase agreements (PPAs) between generators and off-takers.
By exploring these avenues, we hope to continue to shape a new energy system in which energy is generated, bought and used locally.