So why isn’t more being built?

Garn solar project in Vale of Glamorgan (image by Lise)

While on a bike ride in Wales, in the Vale of Glamorgan near Cowbridge, west of Cardiff, I noticed wind turbines on the hills in the distance, and spotted a solar farm, sheep grazing among the panels. Set among the ancient stone walls, farm buildings, manor houses, hedgerows and rolling green fields, the juxtaposition was striking, and I became curious. 

Wales has a long history of coal mining, particularly throughout the industrial revolution. By 1913, Cardiff was the second largest coal exporting port in the world. Much of the wealth of the region, evident in the stately manors still dotting the countryside, can probably be attributed to the coal industry. This era is rapidly ending. Earlier this year, for the first time, the UK produced its electricity for one week entirely without using coal. In Wales, the sole remaining coal plant will be decommissioned in 2020, five years ahead of the UK timeline to phase out coal power by 2025.  

While market forces have certainly played a role in this shift, climate change policy is accelerating it. In 2019, Wales was the first parliament in the world to declare a “climate emergency”, and has adopted the UK Committee on Climate Change target of 95% carbon emissions reduction by 2050, along with an “intent” to reach net zero by the same date, with studies underway to outline a plan to get there. Currently (as of 2018), Wales generates 50% of the electricity it consumes from renewable energy.

Back on the farm, I discovered the solar installation in the Vale of Glamorgan is called Garn, but I couldn’t find any contacts for the two companies that built it. However, I did manage to track down David Waters, who previously worked as the PC Principal Contracts Manager of the site for Conergy. He agreed to meet me at a coffee shop in Cardiff to share his insights to this project and renewable energy in the UK in general. 

Given the national commitments for renewable energy and climate action, I was surprised to hear that solar installations in the UK have virtually stopped. For this reason, David’s work now focuses on operations and maintenance of solar facilities. He told me this is due to the uncertainty of Brexit, and the fact that that the government has slashed subsidies. As a result, investors are pulling out. This includes Conergy, one of the companies that developed the Garn project, explaining why I couldn’t find them online.

The Welsh government’s annual report, although silent on Brexit, corroborates the subsidy situation. In fact, several financing mechanisms are no longer offered for solar: a feed-in tariff for small projects, the Renewable Obligation scheme for large energy producers, which closed to solar PV and onshore wind in 2017, and Contracts for Difference, a legal agreement between a renewable power company and the government to buy energy at a fixed rate. The exclusion of solar PV and onshore wind from the latter is supposed to favour the “less mature” industries of offshore wind and tidal, a move that’s been subject to at least one legal challenge

Onshore wind turbines near Ogmore-by-the-sea, Wales (image by Lise)

The Garn site was developed prior to these changes. I asked how this particular location was chosen, and David explained that an intermediary company often does the work of identifying a site and obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals and land owner agreements, and then sells the rights to an energy company. This process can take many years. The landowner is compensated either in a percentage of the yield of energy produced and sold, or with a flat fee based on acreage. This particular installation generates 7MW with 29,000 panels on 44 acres, about enough to power 2100 homes, part of a multi-site installation in the area designed to power 11,500 homes (according to this media article). The land is low grade in agricultural productivity due to the hard pan limestone under a shallow layer of soil, and suitable only for grazing. The frames supporting the solar panels are mounted to allow sheep to continue to graze among them.  

Sheep-friendly solar panels (image: Wales Online)

Offshore wind faces fewer of these financial market hurdles (but no doubt has its own challenges) and the UK is a world leader in this sector. (On my next stop, I get to meet someone involved in the deployment of offshore wind.)

Wind turbines near Cowbridge, Wales (image by Lise)

In the Vale of Glamorgan area solar PV is one of the main renewable energy technologies, but across Wales it’s wind that dominates. In the past five years, new on-shore and off-shore wind was responsible for 71% of new renewable energy power. Onshore wind is very cost effective and enjoys high levels of public support, but the Conservative government has effectively banned new installations by excluding them from the financial schemes mentioned above. 

All in all, I discovered the renewable energy situation in Wales and the UK to be both more complicated and less rosy than it appeared at first. The technology for wind and solar appears readily available, the economics are positive (onshore wind can be delivered with no or little subsidy), the public is largely supportive. All that remains, it seems, is for the government to allow it to happen, and back up their pledges with action. As David put it, “This would be a wonderful place to live if we all just pulled together.”