Memo to: Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, Defra
Subject: Please don't worry about solar farms, Secretary of State. In return, can solar farmers stop worrying about you?
Kencot Solar Farm. Image credit: Alban Thurston
Located on 130 acres of David Cameron's West Oxfordshire constituency, sheltered by hedges and an ancient copse, commercially-owned Kencot solar farm is invisible at ground level, despite its 140,000 panels powering 11,000 homes with up to 37 MW of electricity. In 2011 the Prime Minister wrote to West Oxon's planners in support of a smaller PV farm planned for the site. With the PM invited but unable to visit, your present correspondent was a poor substitute, visiting for the first day of 'Solar Independence Day 2015', the Solar Trade Association's national celebrations of imminently subsidy-free solar electricity.
Invisible, and on the poor soil of an abandoned airfield, Kencot takes no land from food production. It thus conveniently punctures two prejudices of agriculture secretary Liz Truss, the former oil company accountant & minister of the Crown whose ignorance on solar last autumn was later contradicted by her own department.
Instead by sheltering wildlife under its light-admitting canopy, Kencot solar farm provides a natural oasis amid the monocultures of the 'green deserts' too often favoured by Ms Truss's ministry. Kencot's meadows have attracted breeding pairs of ground-nesting Skylarks, helping to reverse a catastrophic recent national halving of the bird's population. With Ralph Vaughan Williams' gorgeous music playing in your mind's ear, you're more likely to thrill to a lark ascending over Kencot's PV modules, than over an English prairie doused in chemicals. Threatened butterflies, moths and insects prosper, too at Kencot; a series of 'hibernacula' even guarantees cosy winters for grass snakes and other reptiles. No surprise then, that the solar farm is popular with locals.
Spot the solar farm; approaching Kencot Solar Farm. Image credit: Alban Thurston
Circling its surrounding lanes for half an hour before stumbling on the farm, I can attest to its discrete location, even on a hill. No noise, no pollutants, no smells, no heavy traffic on its country lanes, no night-time lights; would Kencot be as unobtrusive if it were a fracking site, do you think, Secretary of State?
Located under the glide path into RAF Brize Norton, Kencot in the 1940s housed RAF Broadwell. That airbase closed after the Berlin Airlift. Poor soil meant the site proved only marginally useful for farming. A golf resort planned in the 1980s foundered in bankruptcy. As grassland and rough pasture grew over the old runway, Kencot has bloomed, becoming worthy of study by conservationists. Transformed today into a powerhouse for silent, low carbon electricity, it still is.
Kencot's site was bought in 2005 by Tad Czapski, British-born technology director of Formula 1 race teams Ferrari, then Renault. Conergy completed the turnkey construction over five weeks last summer, on behalf of energy supplier RWE. The German giant subsequently sold their interest to green asset managers Foresight Group.
Kencot was my first of three stops on Friday's 250-mile tour, the first day in 2015's Solar Independence Day celebration, run by the Solar Trade Association. The STA distinguishes itself from lesser solar representatives, by possessing the intelligence, courage and integrity to roll up its sleeves, and fight when necessary.
Both solar farms I visited are built to the standards of the Solar Trade Association's 10 Commitments. Commercially owned Kencot, as well my second destination, Westmill Solar, near Swindon, embody the best of solar good neighbourliness. Co-operatively owned by over 2,400 investors, each with an equal vote in raising the £4.3 million needed to build it, Westmilll's 2MW of wind, plus 3MW of solar, makes it the EU's biggest community-run energy co-op. It regularly pumps out 4.8GWh per year, equal to the electricity consumed of 1,400 Oxfordshire homes. In 2013 Westmill scooped a prestigious EU Sustainable Energy Week award at a ceremony in Brussels.
Wetmill Solar Co-op. Image credit: Alban Thurston
Located on 30 acres of Adam Twine's land near Watchfield, just off the A420, Westmill's five turbines are named and sponsored by local primary schools: 'Huff'n'Puff' by Shrivenham CofE Primary, 'Windy Warrior' by Longcot & Fernham School, 'Gusty Gizmo' by Southfield Junior, etc. Since it's those kids who stand to inherit a world gravely endangered by our carbon-heavy lifestyles, that is only fitting.
In more ways than one, Friday was a flying visit for me. After admiring PV on Kencot's old airbase and before touring Westmill, I drove to meet Roger Targett, pioneer of the Electroflight Lightning P1, Britain's would-be battery-powered electric racing airplane – see http://electro-flight.co.uk/.
Based in a hangar near Nympsfield, Roger reckons he has cracked battery and propulsion questions, on the path to launching the Electroflight as a flying prototype. Spending a million already in development, Roger needs £3 million to complete the flying versions. The full story of Roger's six-year venture to get Electroflight off the ground – Solar Impulse-style – must await a further issue of this publication. Meanwhile here are some shots, taken as Roger's team displayed Electroflight at the recent Formula E deciding race weekend in Battersea Park.