Cover image – The Chapel Farm solar project, brought forward by Swindon Borough Council. Image: Swindon Borough Council.

I have been working in solar farm development with local authorities for over ten years now and over that time many different themes have developed. Financial incentives have come and gone, government policy has ebbed and flowed and the position of local government has bobbed like a boat on a tide.

Latterly, local authorities have endured a sustained period of austerity, where their budgets have been cut by up to 50%; more recently, local councils have been at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic and have been instrumental in dealing with the impact of the crisis at local level.

Notwithstanding these issues, the climate emergency remains a priority in the majority of local authorities and the development of renewable energy assets is gaining momentum. Solar Media Market Research’s Finlay Colville writes that this is likely to be a bumper year for solar PV and this will certainly be the case for council projects, as local authorities identify land available for development and draw up proposals.

But many local authorities have little or no experience of developing renewable energy assets and my work demonstrates that many are repeating mistakes made by their predecessors. In the spirit of promoting important skills development and learning, I set out below the 10 most common mistakes that are being made. These will be discussed in detail at the Solar Media training events, more detail on which can be found here. The dates and times of these courses are below, and Solar Power Portal readers can receive an exclusive 10% discount by using the code ‘SPP10’ at checkout.

  • Developing a Solar Farm by a Local Authority on Its Own Land 
    28th April 2021 (09:00 – 13:30 GMT)
  • Developing Buildings Based Solar PV by a Local Authority on Its Own Buildings and Assets 
    12th May 2021 (09:00 – 13:30 GMT)
  • Declaring a Climate Emergency for a Local Authority and Developing a Robust Action Plan 
    28th May 2021 (09:00 – 13:30 GMT)

Unrealistic time frames

Development of such assets is a complex and technical task which takes time. It is not wise to rush a first-time development where no prior experience exists. Under normal circumstances, a solar farm development will take a local authority 12-18 months to complete. For complex or larger capacity projects, it will be longer still.

Whatever the members want, no matter how dire the finances are, no matter how time constrained an offer of financial assistance is – this is how long it takes.

A programme of work needs to be drawn up and this will have key stages, such as concept, feasibility, planning, grid, procurement, construction and so on. Each needs to be allocated a reasonable amount of time to complete. If a timetable is too tight, the project falls behind and never catches up. This has all sorts of knock-on effects and can damage confidence in its overall achievability.


Grid problems

The availability of a decent sized and affordable grid connection is essential to any project that does not involve on-site use of electricity or a private wire connection. This is one of two ‘dealbreaker’ issues.

Solar farms can be connected to the transmission network or the distribution network, requiring liaison with either National Grid or one of the main DNOs. These can be difficult organisations to engage with and who operate in another world of technical jargon and complexity.

It is often worthwhile to use the services of a grid consultant to assist with this stage. What a local authority wants is a clear option to achieve its goal, for example a 5MW connection to a primary substation for an affordable fee such as £200,000.

Sometimes options can be varied. Connections via different substations or taking different cable routes will have different costs. Sometimes, grid capacity has to be made up from different sources, perhaps a private wire + smaller grid connection.

In a clear link to the first mistake, these discussions take time and need to be carefully considered. Of course a grid connection is not secured until a valid offer has been accepted and a deposit paid.


Planning problems

Perhaps because local authorities understand planning, they believe that this should not be an issue. But it is the second of the ‘dealbreaker’ issues.

It is always good advice to a solar farm developer to say choose your site carefully and it is no different for a local council. Sites overlooked by housing are a bad start and the Green Belt is always much more difficult as any development there is deemed to be inappropriate, unless very special circumstances exist and the harm to the Green Belt is outweighed by those circumstances.

Delays can be encountered in the supporting reports to a full planning application, such as ecology, habitat and visual amenity. Where breeding birds are involved, reports can only be undertaken at certain times of the year and so if this window is missed, months can be lost to the development programme. Great crested newts can also be a problem.

Other areas less obvious are where a local authority has the power to actually grant permission to itself. Even then it has to be careful how it does this to act lawfully and avoid challenge.

Past history is also a potential minefield. If a council has refused consent for 5 previous solar farm applications submitted by private developers, the press will have a field day if it then grants permission for its own!


Consultancy support

This is obviously an area where I have a conflict of interest, as I provide consultancy support for these projects, alongside other consultancies that specialise in such work.

However, my point here is to consider carefully what business your proposed adviser is actually in. Some authorities have been seduced by offers from solar farm developers of free work to ‘help them along’ with the preparation of a solar farm project.

Developers are, of course, only interested in one thing – building solar farms. They have no experience of ‘client side’ issues that a council will face and it is these issues that are make or break for such projects. Does the council have the powers to do this? What is the position of the s151 officer? Have the right council decisions been taken? Are the procurement rules being followed? How quickly can decisions be taken?

It is not about the technical issues of capacity and connecting it all up that are most important to this very special type of developer. As ever, you will get the consultancy services that you seek and get what you pay for.


Tenancy problems

Many councils, particularly county councils, own land forming smallholdings or farms. Usually, such land has a resident tenant. Obviously to be able to build the solar farm, the council needs possession. But it is always dangerous to assume that simply because the council owns the land it can simply remove the tenant at will.

Tenancies are governed by a range of legal provisions, such as the Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 or the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995 and each has different provisions for possession. Sometimes a notice has to be served but a counter notice can be served by the tenant. These issues can drag on for months, if not years.

There are whole sections in legal textbooks as to the ‘to and fro’ of how this plays out and there have been examples where possession is not possible at all.

A better course is to take specialist legal advice about the nature of the tenancy and the provisions that apply. Then engage with the tenant and open up a dialogue. If agreement can be reached, this is always the best way.

This may involve the payment of compensation, whether required or voluntary. Another possibility is to enter a deal with the tenant where the farm (if larger than the parcel the council wants back) stays with the tenant but this part is removed from it and compensation paid, perhaps by a rent reduction on the remainder.

Part two of ‘The 10 most common mistakes in solar farm development by local authorities’ will be published on Tuesday 13 April 2021. Meanwhile, more details on Solar Power Portal publisher Solar Media’s training events can be found here, including a complete timetable. SPP readers can once again receive an exclusive 10% discount on training events using the code ‘SPP10’ at checkout.