Experts are getting excited about a proposed solar farm in the southeast of England and what it could mean for a future without fossil fuels

The largest solar power plant ever proposed in the UK will be reviewed by the secretary of state within the next six months. Cleve Hill solar farm will occupy the north coast of Kent and, if built, provide up to 350MW (megawatts) of generating capacity.

The plan is for Cleve Hill to generate the lowest cost electricity on the UK network without needing subsidies to stay afloat. There have been subsidy free solar installations before, but nothing like Cleve Hill’s 1,000 acre development. The plant will also include battery storage – giving operators the option of storing energy when the price of electricity is low and selling when it’s high.

So why is this such a landmark moment for the UK’s electricity supply? Well, there are now nearly a million solar panels in the UK, which includes everything from those mounted on roofs to farms occupying entire fields.

The rate of deployment has waxed and waned over the last 10 years – largely determined by the level of subsidy the government was willing to offer. When subsidies were high, the installation rate grew exponentially, with the peak number of installations doubling every few months. When subsidies fell, installation rates plummeted.

The government has so far overseen solar power growth by controlling subsidies. This boom and bust model meant companies failed and installers lost their jobs in the bad times, and companies were created or changed business models in the good times.

Today, the installation rate is very low because there is virtually no subsidy and it’s very hard to make money out of solar. However, Cleve Hill could show that money can be made without subsidy, and where one project goes others will follow. This could be the moment solar installations start to grow again.

Small and large-scale solar power

When we at Sheffield Solar, a research group based in the University of Sheffield, started researching the impact of solar energy on the UK electricity grid back in 2010, we wondered what would happen when solar power generation became so cheap that the government couldn’t control the growth of installation anymore via subsidies and incentives.

Cleve Hill seems to mark the moment when solar energy becomes self-reliant. But maybe it’s not so simple. Cleve Hill makes financial sense because it’s so big. But big comes with implications.

Some of the public support for energy generated by photovoltaics (PV), the technology that converts sunlight into electricity, comes from its easy integration into the built environment. Solar panels on roofs make sense to the public because electricity generation is happening at the point of use. Solar farms make sense to investors because they are cheaper to instal per unit of electricity but also bigger – so finance can be accessed in larger chunks and investors can make more money.

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