By Paul Davies and Michael Green

The first solar farm has successfully launched in the UK without government subsidisation. Clayhill Solar Farm, a 10 megawatt (MW) site near Flitwick in Bedfordshire, is capable of generating enough power for 2500 homes. Clayhill’s developer, Anesco, is a private company specialising in the design and development of solar and battery storage sites.

Renewable energy projects like Clayhill have become increasingly viable in recent years due to the falling cost of solar panels and batteries. In particular, cheaper manufacturing costs have enabled solar generation to become cost-competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. However, despite these favorable conditions, the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme — one of the UK government’s main mechanisms for encouraging renewable electricity projects — closed to new applicants in March 2017.

Anesco closely evaluated every element of the site, including the design and technical specifications, in order to successfully finance and develop Clayhill without a government subsidy scheme. The site’s five battery storage units can capture and store energy for future use — a feature that Anesco considers central to Clayhill’s economic feasibility. Consistent with recent supply trends, it was a Chinese manufacturer that supplied the battery storage units and solar panels used at Clayhill.

According to Steve Shine OBE, Anesco’s Executive Chairman, “[Clayhill] proves that the Government’s decision to withdraw subsidies doesn’t have to signal the end of solar as a commercially viable [energy] technology”. However, the Solar Trade Association (STA) has expressed concerns, suggesting that such “pathfinder” projects will likely be few and far between. An STA spokeswoman said that government subsidies will remain necessary to support the majority of future solar projects if ministers want to take advantage of the technology to help meet the UK’s carbon reduction targets.

Clayhill is a “landmark” moment that represents the latest development in a series of UK clean energy “firsts”. Given the recently announced Green Finance taskforce and the increasing contribution of low-carbon sources to the National Grid, it is difficult to predict whether Clayhill has helped pave the way for the development of subsidy-free sites in the near future, or if government subsidies will still prove necessary for the continued success of solar power projects in the UK.