When we recently attended the Great Yorkshire Show, we had so many positive conversations with farmers and landowners who are interested in investigating the potential for developing an energy project that would provide them with a secure income stream from their land.
Landowners who lease their land for a solar farm development typically agree to a 40-year long partnership. You’ll be paid on an annual basis, creating a long-term, stable and predictable income that’s index-linked, so it rises with inflation.
There are four key stages in the lifecycle of a solar farm: planning, construction, maintenance, and end of life. But as a landowner, how involved do you have to be in each of these stages? And how will the solar farm impact your wider farm operations? Here, I’ll breakdown what’s involved at each stage of the solar farm lifecycle; the journey we go through when developing a solar farm; and answer the commonly asked questions about what a partnership entails.
If I’m interested in talking about leasing my land for a solar development - what will you want to know?
When we initially speak, we’d just need to know some basic information to get things started. Of course, we’ll want to know your contact details, but the only other ‘must have’ piece of information would be how much land you’re considering leasing for the solar farm, and where that land is located – ideally identified on a map. It would be a bonus if you have information about any grid infrastructure nearby, but we can look at that if you don’t know.
After that, we’ll go away and look at whether the land is suitable for a solar farm. You can take a look at our land suitability criteria blog to see the kinds of things we’ll look at. If your land fits the bill, we’ll arrange to visit your site. We’d then ask you to sign a Letter of Authority for the local electricity network operator (DNO), which gives us permission to speak with them about the technical details of connecting a solar installation on your land.
If my land is suitable to explore a solar farm, what happens next?
If your land is suitable and we’re interested in pursuing planning permission and leasing it for a solar farm, we’ll ask you to sign some documentation that will grant us an ‘option’ over the land. This gives us a set amount of time to secure the necessary consents – usually 2 to 3 years, with the option to extend. When the various consents have been granted, we’ll then enter into a lease agreement with you, and begin construction of the solar farm.
We’re not in the business of land banking. We intend to own and operate our solar farms for the long-term. So you can rest assured that we’ll be there through the whole journey – from getting consents and constructing the solar farm, to managing its ongoing maintenance and then removing it at the end of our agreement.
How involved do I have to be?
We’ll manage the full planning, construction and maintenance process on your behalf and keep you informed on progress. But there will be a few occasions when it would be useful for you to have some involvement. For example, when we’re conducting public consultations or speaking with your local parish council. We’re looking for a long-term, positive relationship – with both you, and with your local community. If your neighbours have concerns over the plans, we need to address those. It would be great to have your support in reassuring them.
We’d also recommend that you take independent legal advice on the legal and tax implications of the solar farm project, as part of your usual estate planning process. We’d be happy to talk about supporting you with some of the costs for that.
Will construction of a solar farm impact my other farming operations?
We’ll work with you to agree a construction timeline that works best for you and ideally fits in with the farming cycle. If you’ve already got crops in the ground, we can discuss holding off on entering into the lease until after harvesting. Or we could potentially talk about compensating you for them. During the planning process, we’d also work with your local community to agree a traffic management plan for our construction vehicles, to minimise disruption to your neighbours.
It’s possible to graze sheep around the solar farm, so you can get dual-use from the land. If that’s something you plan on doing, let us know at the beginning of the relationship, and we’ll make sure the solar farm is built in the most appropriate way: a little higher off the ground, so there’s room for the sheep to move beneath, and more ducting on the cabling to prevent them from being chewed by livestock.
Will the construction of a solar farm damage my land?
We consider ourselves stewards over the land where our solar farms are located. We know it’s our duty to protect the land, and ensure it’s always kept in good shape. We take our responsibilities very seriously.
The ground conditions of your land will determine what construction method we have to take. But our preference is to pile steel posts into the ground, typically to a depth of about a meter and a half. The frame of the solar panels are then affixed to this. We prefer this approach as it causes the minimum amount of damage to the ground. But if this isn’t possible – perhaps you’ve got archaeology on site – we would precast a concrete platform off-site and bring that in to affix the solar panels to.
We’re dedicated to ensuring our installations are safe, while enhancing the biodiversity of your land. This can mean improving hedgerows, introducing wildflower seeding, or something else that will enhance the biodiversity of the land.
How do I know you’re not just going to disappear half-way through construction?
We’re a FTSE-100 organisation with a strong balance sheet, that’s looking to own and operate the solar farm for the long-term and build a portfolio of our own renewable energy assets. We've also got a great track record of developing and maintaining these types of energy assets for our customers for years. You can rest assured that we're in it for the long-term.
How much maintenance will happen on-site when the solar farm is in-situ?
Twice a year, we’ll be onsite to cut the grass (if you’re not grazing sheep) and manage any hedges within the site (outside of nesting season). If you’d prefer to do that yourself, we can discuss it as part of the lease agreement. Once a year, we’ll come to site to clean the solar panels, so they operate at maximum performance. Most of our monitoring of the system itself will be completed remotely, but we’ll visit the site on a quarterly or half-yearly basis to complete physical checks and inspect for any issues with the cables or panels.
What remote maintenance will you do on the solar farm?
We use our remote monitoring software to monitor the performance of the solar farm. If we notice an underperformance – for example, if there’s an issue with an inverter – we’ll send someone out to the site to get the problem resolved as soon as possible. All of this will keep everything working at its best and delivering maximum support to the UK’s energy transition
What happens when the lease comes to an end?
Our partnership will typically last for 40 years. At the end of that partnership, we’ll ensure that the solar farm is removed in its entirety, and that the land is put back in at least as good a state as it was given to us. If a concrete pad was used during construction, we’ll remove it, alongside all cabling, frames, panels etc. You may actually see some improvements to the site with increased biodiversity and enhance hedges.
At Centrica Business Solutions, we can help you work out whether a renewable energy development on your land is likely to be successful. To find out more, please contact the Centrica Energy Assets team. We’d be happy to help.
Bill Rees is the Director of Centrica Energy Assets, which is playing a leading part in shaping the UK’s net zero future, by building a 900MW portfolio of solar and battery storage assets over the next five years.
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