Work starts on UK’s largest solar plant

Construction of the UK’s largest solar and battery storage plant has begun after the company developing it won the highest government subsidy yet for a sun-powered energy scheme.

Project Fortress, which is being built on 890 acres of countryside at Cleve Hill near Faversham in Kent, was granted development consent in May 2020 and was the first solar farm to be approved as a nationally significant infrastructure project. Once operational, it is forecast to generate enough renewable power each year to meet the needs of about 100,000 UK homes.

Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, the investment manager behind the farm, is being supported by the government’s Contracts for Difference (CFD) scheme with a 15-year deal in which it will be paid a fixed price for the electricity generated, with revenues adjusted for inflation and the cost paid by consumers through their energy bills. The price is equivalent to £56 a megawatt hour on 40 per cent of the output.

The scheme is set to be completed and connected to the National Grid early next year. It is the largest under construction in the UK, although an even bigger project is planned by Photovolt Development Partners at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire that could provide enough electricity to power 330,000 homes.

Rory Quinlan, co-founder and managing partner of Quinbrook, said the UK had “historically been very generous to renewable energy projects with a secure regime that has been operating since the 1990s”.

“It remains a very attractive market for renewable providers,” he added. “The UK government is supportive through the CFD auction and the capacity market mechanism and there is a lot of corporate and social pressure for the UK to decarbonise.”

The UK generated 13.5 terawatt hours from solar last year — about 4.3 per cent of total electricity generation — and there is at present capacity for 15 gigawatts, according to trade body Solar Energy UK.

The government’s energy security strategy aims to deliver a fivefold increase to 70GW by 2035. An industry task force to drive the expansion is expected to be formally announced in the coming weeks.

Solar Energy UK said there had been rapid growth in rooftop solar installations this year, with 57,125 below 50kW so far, only slightly less than the number installed in the whole of 2021.

However, the biggest obstacle facing new solar projects was a lack of capacity in the electricity grid, Solar UK said. Many projects have been told that they have a 10- to 15-year wait to get a connection, with one given a 2037 deadline.

“Securing investment in reinforcing the UK’s electricity networks is priority number one for the solar industry,” Solar Energy UK said. “Many larger projects, whether solar farms or mounted on warehouse rooftops, are unable to connect to the grid and waiting times for upgrades can stretch long into the 2030s.”

National Grid said it was committed to connecting projects to the grid as fast as possible, that a majority of projects in the pipeline had connection dates within 12 months of their requested date, and that it was “working with the electricity system operator, Ofgem and wider industry to introduce new ways to speed up the process”.

Quinbrook has built more than 130 renewable projects in the UK and recently won planning approval for a 230MW battery project on a former coal-fired power station in Wales.

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