According to Solar Media’s market intelligence, the UK now has a pipeline of 24GW of ground-mount solar. Image: Andreas Gücklhorn (unsplash).

Low Carbon has confirmed plans to develop a 500MW solar and energy storage park in Lincolnshire, with the initial consultation anticipated to take place in early 2022.

The extent of the land available means it can be delivered wholly within one site, which will be located in the West Lindsay District near Gate Burton, Knaith Park and Willingham-by-Stow.

Currently, preliminary work is underway to identify the most appropriate area for the Gate Burton site, including determining the potential routes for electrical connection to the national grid. This will use the existing substation at Cottam Power Station in Nottinghamshire, as the coal-fired power station closed in 2019.

It is the second major solar project proposed that will take advantage of the grid capacity left by the 2,000MW EDF-owned site. Island Green Power is looking to build a 600MW solar project utilising the grid connection of Cottam, along with a 480MW solar site using the grid connection of coal power plant West Burton A – which also has a capacity of 2,000MW and is scheduled to end generation in 2022 ahead of the ban on unabated coal generation in the UK in 2024.

Given the recent decarbonised electricity grid by 2035 target announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the tumultuous period for the energy sector driven in large part by a global shortage of gas, it is “critical … for the UK to deliver on the transition to home grown renewable energy sources without delay,” said Mike Rutgers, development director at Low Carbon.

“Low Carbon is therefore pleased to be bringing forward proposals for Gate Burton Energy Park which will deliver significant levels of renewable energy generation and contribute to securing the energy needs of Great Britain.”

The growing pipeline of NSIP solar

Given the scale of Gate Burton Energy Park it will have to be classified as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP). As such it will require a Development Consent Order (DCO) application to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate, following which there will be further consultation and engagement with all interested parties, before a final decision will be made by the the secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Currently just one solar project has been granted consent through the NSIP process, the 350MW Cleve Hill Solar Farm. This joint venture between Hive Energy and Wirsol, was originally submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in 2017 and was given the go ahead in May 2020. It was then acquired by Quinbrook and renamed as Project Fortress.

There are four other projects registered in the NSIP, including the 120MW Little Crow Solar Farm put forward by Hampshire-based INRG Solar in 2018, Longfield Solar Energy Farm in Essex registered in 2020 and the 163MW Oaklands Solar Farm registered by BayWa r.e. in September 2021.

The final solar project registered in the NSIP is also based in Lincolnshire, with Ecotricity looking to develop the Heckington Fen Solar Park. The site was approved for use for renewable generation by the Secretary of State in 2013, however the company has been unable to satisfy the Ministry of Defence's radar concerns, hampering its original plan to install 22 wind turbines.

As such it is proposing the development of a solar site with an anticipated yearly generation of over 385GWh and a capacity of up to 500MW according to the company’s website. It is currently undertaking surveys and expects to submit its environmental impact assessment in December.

Booming large-scale solar and the players pulling ahead

Gate Burton Energy Park, together with Heckington Fen and other NSIP solar projects, takes the cumulative ground-mounted solar pipeline in the UK to about 24GW spread across 770 sites according to Solar Media’s market intelligence. Of these, over 270 are above 40MWp-dc in size, contributing 18GW of this pipeline. This breaks down into about 8.5GW of projects at full application stage and about 4.4GW approved and ready to build.

Commenting on the Gate Burton Energy Park and the Heckington Fen Solar Park, Solar Media’s head of market intelligence Finlay Colville said: “While, on the surface, these projects look similar, being 500MW NSIP projects, the plans from Ecotricity would appear to be somewhat more speculative and risky, compared to Low Carbon’s project plans.

“Many of the large solar projects under development in the UK – including some of the NSIPs – are being driven by experienced early-stage developer partnerships with a proven track-record of flipping projects prior to construction and infrastructure financing being put in place. This has not been the forte of Ecotricity in the past, and the company’s history of developing solar farms in the UK has been minimal in the past, with most of the early sub-5MW plans from feed-in tariff days abandoned years ago.”

He continued to add that while the plans from Low Carbon are currently early stage, the company has been a major player in the solar PV sector in the UK over the past decade. This includes partnering with Tesco to develop three solar projects with an annual capacity of 130GWh, and working with Low Carbon Hub to build the UK’s largest community solar sire Ray Valley Solar farm, which at 19MW is expected to generate 18GWh per year.

Low Carbon has been bolstered by fully embracing the post-subsidy environment in the UK, finding and developing 49.9MWp-dc sites, according to Colville.

“In fact, according to the latest release of Solar Media’s UK Large-Scale Solar Farms – The Post-Subsidy Prospect List, Low Carbon already has about 1.4GW of pipeline sites in the UK (across about 32 solar parks), with an average size of more than 40MWp-dc. More than 800MW of this is already in the planning portals. The latest plans would put Low Carbon at nearly 2GW of solar farm pipeline capacity in the UK, essentially making it the leading developer today by capacity. This shows the fundamental difference between the plans being put forward currently by Ecotricity and Low Carbon.”

Ecotricity currently has 1MW of green electricity from solar in the UK, along with a number of solar projects under development including two that will be co-located with existing wind farms – the 12MW Dalby project and the 7.8MW Bulkworthy project.

Next steps in development

Low Carbon is expecting the DCO submission and following examination of the Gate Burton Energy Park to take between two and three years to complete. As such, subject to achieving consent, it is expecting to start construction no earlier than 2024.

Ecotricity’s Heckington Fen site is planning to submit its DCO in 2023, and hopes to get a decision by the government by mid-2024.

The announcements of both the Gate Burton site, and the Heckington and Cottam sites are timely, with the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow drawing additional attention to the UK’s renewables sector.

“Large-scale solar in the UK appears to be almost alone as a sector in driving change, in that it really is lacking the support of the UK government today and is certainly not helped by the latest marketing efforts to rebrand nuclear (again) as both green and renewable,” finished Colville.

“Would this happen in any other country – apart from France – today? The start of subsidy-free (and absent of any government-led media championing) large-scale solar in the UK cannot come quick enough. In this respect, the attention leading up to COP26 should perhaps be on the multi-GW of new capacity that could be built over the next 18 months (mostly coming from 49.9MWp-dc projects that have been planned now for the past 2-3 years) and maybe evidence of ground-breaking on one of the early NSIP projects to be consented, such as Cleve Hill.”