Forest Heath has plugged into the renewable power market by buying the UK’s biggest council-owned solar farm to boost its income.
The district council announced on Friday it has bought Greenheath Energy Ltd and with it the 12.4 megawatt solar farm at Toggam Farm, near Lakenheath, for almost £14.5 million.
It was bought using capital cash because under local government finance rules, councils are not allowed to use capital to plug annual funding gaps, as the money would eventually ‘disappear’, but they can invest it in projects which generate an annual income.
Chief Financial officer Rachael Mann explained that once an annual provision for the capital outlay has been recouped, the farm will raise £300,000 in the first year. The council says that will rise to £700,000 by year 10, partly through selling on electricity to the National Grid.
Cllr Stephen Edwards, Forest Heath’s cabinet member for resources and performance said: “This is not the first, but it is the biggest publicly owned solar farm in the UK and it will produce enough electricity to power 3,000 homes, plus cut the carbon footprint by the equivalent of 2,000 cars.
“The way councils are financed is changing – our main Government grant will be scrapped by around 2020 and Council Tax doesn’t cover as much as people think. This means we have to look at new ways of investing to make money to pay for services.
“In the future, the solar farm could provide energy to West Suffolk councils’ offices and our leisure centres, helping us and our partners to save money on energy costs on top of the income it will bring in, while further down the line there may also be opportunities to benefit our communities as well.
“We plan to lobby the Government to relax charges over the generation and supply of energy to local markets. If successful that could allow us to offer our own branded tariffs to local businesses, providing them for the first time with stable energy supply costs, which in turn would help support local economic growth.
“We would also like to be able to offer something similar to the vulnerable members of our community and will continue to explore how we can overcome the barriers in the market.”
The 17.5 hectare solar farm has 47,748 panels, each measuring 1.6m by 1m and weighing 20kg.
Thomas Clayton, developer and director of Greenheath Ltd said: “The solar farm is up and running, producing renewable energy and will now be generating income to assist the council in continuing to provide excellent services.”
A year ago, the council proposed developing the solar farm with Greenheath Farming but dropped the plan because checks revealed site issues that it feared could not be resolved in time to meet the March 31 completion deadline to gain ‘crucial Government funding’, so it could not take the risk. Greenheath decided to go ahead alone.