Forest Heath plans £14m solar farm

Solar farrm
Solar farrm

Forest Heath looks set to become one of the first councils to run its own solar power farm as a source of income.

An extraordinary meeting of the council last night gave the go ahead for the £14.4 million project, subject to due diligence checks.

The project involves buying a company with its land and project rights and signing a contract with another to connect the farm to the National Grid, so commercial sensitivity means the council cannot reveal the location of the site, which has planning permission, or the names of the companies. A spokesman would not even confirm whether the site is in Forest Heath or its acreage.

Council officers did say the site has no neighbours.

In a presentation to the council, Rachael Mann, head of resources and performance, said the West Suffolk Energy Plan, approved in December, included putting solar panels on council buildings and launching a ‘rent-a-roof’ scheme to put them on commercial properties, but they also wanted to invest in solar ‘on a larger scale’.

She added: “It’s about delivering a community energy plan reducing our carbon footprint and providing a revenue stream.”

She explained how income came from a 20-year Government guaranteed subsidy for renewable energy and selling power to the grid.

The expectations are for it to make £220,000 in the first year, rising to £310,000 in year five and £540,000 in year 10.

Risks were outlined as unexpected construction or operating costs, changes in Government policy – though that is unlikely to affect existing projects – panels not performing as expected and panels needing early replacement.

But she added: “Officers are trying to mitigate these things.”

If it passes due diligence, work will start in the autumn and it should be running by the end of March.

The presentation revealed the council has engaged Price Waterhouse Cooper to consult on financial issues, plus technical and legal advisors and is getting advice from Telford and Wrekin Council, who were the second council to build a solar farm.

Felicity Mercer, Telford’s commercial projects manager, gave a clue to the size of Forest Heath’s project when she revealed that her council’s 16,000 panels over 30 acres was ‘smaller than this installation’.

She said their scheme had performed two per cent better than expected and they are expecting a £144,000 surplus, after borrowing costs, in the first year.

“This site will enable us to offer more services,” she added.

Their site has neighbours but received no complaints and 92 per cent of people left a pre-construction exhibition in favour of the council doing it.

After the meeting voted unanimously for the project, Cllr Stephen Edwards, Forest Heath’s resources portfolio holder, said: “It’s a plan for an excellent revenue stream for the tax payers but we really do have to do the due diligence work.”