Norfolk and Suffolk could become solar energy capital

An entrepreneur with permission to build two solar energy farms in Norfolk believes the region has potential to become a centre for the technology, provided the government does not withdraw financial support for large-scale developments.

Richard Atkins, co-owner of Norwich-based PV Farms, said his company was in a 'race against time' to build an �8.5m solar plant at the former RAF Neatishead before a government review of the feed-in-tariff incentive (FIT) scheme.

His comments came as renewable energy company Enertrag revealed it was renewing the future of its Norfolk operation, blaming a lack of political support for onshore wind farms.

PV Farms is seeking planning permission from North Norfolk District Council for the plant which, if approved, would generate 3.5MW of electricity, enough to power up to 1,000 homes, and has also applied for permission to build a �5.5m plant at South Larling, near Attleborough.

The company already has consent to build two solar farms: a �1.75 million scheme at Muck Lane, Salhouse, near Norwich and an �8.5m project at Airfield Farm, Snetterton. Work is due to start on both schemes in the next four to six weeks.

Mr Atkins said East Anglia had the potential to become a capital for solar electricity generation over the next few years, but only if government incentives remained in place.

A review of the FIT scheme, under which electricity producers are paid for the surplus electricity they put back into the national grid, was announced by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) last month and is expected to be published in July.

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The government has said it is concerned that larger projects with more than 50kW capacity could eat into the scheme's �360m budget and reduce the incentives available to smaller schemes. While this would reduce the profitability of solar plants, any site operational before then would continue to run under current arrangements.

Mr Atkins said: 'The DECC announcement has thrown a lot of things into total chaos. The review of tariffs could be published as early as July 19. We're obviously racing against time to get these in.'

The solar farms use photovoltaic (PV) panels to convert the sun's rays into electricity. Mr Atkins said they could help provide electricity to support development in parts of Norfolk where the power network is inadequate.

At Neatishead, negotiations are continuing with English Heritage over some of the listed structures and radar there. Mr Atkins said if permission for the solar farm was granted, it could help kick-start the development of secure data storage businesses at the site's underground bunker.

'It's a swords-into-ploughshares situation. By allowing power to come on to the site the landlord is in a position to maintain a building of historical interest,' he said.

'Some of the power will go into the grid. Some will be used by the site and we will pump some to Neatishead village.'

Mr Atkins said solar power was the most 'benign' of all renewable technologies. 'You don't have the intrusiveness of wind turbines, large structures that upset a lot of people and cause a great amount of wind disturbance,' he said.

'The maximum height will be three metres. Typically there will be 15,000 to 25,000 panels according to the size of the scheme. They can easily be tucked away behind hedges so they are not visibly intrusive.'

'With PV panels, after use the site can be returned to another use. We will also be able to grant grazing rights for sheep so the land doesn't come out of production. We've been working with soil experts at the UEA to help the land recover nitrogen.'

Mr Atkins said the fossil fuel age was now ending. 'Oil has reached $120 a barrel and it's never going to come down - it's only going to get worse. In the next few years we will see more and more electric car models produced by mainstream manufacturers. We need to look at the demands for charging these vehicles.

'This region has an awful lot going for it. It could become a significant player. We have some talented manufacturing here

that could adapt. There are opportunities for secondary employment in areas like fabrication.

'We have good levels of sunshine here, on a par with northern Germany, and, of course, a lot of flat land.'

Chris Starkie, chief executive of Shaping Norfolk Future, the county's economic development partnership, said: 'We know that growth across Norfolk and the creation of jobs on business parks up and down the county is being held back by the lack of infrastructure: water, electricity and gas.

'Power is a particular problem at places like Snetterton, North Walsham and even Norwich Research Park. Norfolk is very well placed to be at the centre of the renewable energy revolution.

'Solar energy has great potential, both in domestic applications and, with our land mass, solar farms, as part of an overall renewable energy mix.

'The technology is still developing. Is it going to be a massive solution for everywhere? It's too early to say.'