North Somerset - a solar power hotspot

NORTH Somerset has been named one of the greenest parts of the country, after figures showed it is home to the third most solar installations in the UK.

Latest Government statistics reveal more than 3,500 homes in the district – four per cent of the total – are home to energy-generating solar panels.

According to the Department for Energy and Climate Change, 3,542 out of 88,273 homes can turn on their lights and do their washing at no cost to them or the environment.This places North Somerset third in the country, behind only two local authority areas in Devon and Wales.

Of course, the technological know-how which allows us to harness the sun’s power to create energy has been around for decades.

But advances in both efficiency and availability have seen an explosion in the number of private installations in the past couple of years. Now, thousands of homes, as well as a smattering of schools, churches and community halls, across the district are becoming part of the new solar generation.

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A spokesman from energy efficiency specialists, The Eco Experts, said: “North Somerset and other southerly parts of the UK have the ideal conditions for solar panels.

“As energy bills look set to increase and increase, these savvy homeowners are doing all they can to avoid these huge costs.

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“The cost of solar panels is continuing to drop, so it really is a fantastic investment, with a better return on investment than many banks.

“It is fantastic that North Somerset is taking advantage of the free energy you can generate from solar panels.”

The move to solar energy is being partly driven by growing environmental awareness, and partly by people hunting alternatives to spiralling electricity prices.

Installations cost between �2,000 and �3,000 per kilowatt (kw), and a 3kw system is usually enough to meet a household’s energy needs.

When you factor in the added bonus of being able to make money by selling any surplus energy to the national grid, the attraction for home-owners is clear.

Solar energy is a boom business, a fact clearly demonstrated by Brockley-based company Solarsense. The firm, which specialises in renewable energy options, says demand has increased more than threefold in the past three years.

In the 2009/10 financial year, it reported a turnover of �2.1million and completed 300 solar installations, but by 2011/12, turnover had increased to �14million and more than 1,000 installations were carried out.

General manager Kerry Burns said: “Our company has more than doubled in size (turnover and installations completed) every year for the last three years.We have done over 400 installations in North Somerset in that time, of which around 78 per cent are solar PV.

“There are trends that are creating positive change. The principle one is that commercial-scale solar is a growing sector, filling part of the gap in domestic sales, the other is that rising energy prices are making the investment in on-site renewables, and solar PV in particular, increasingly economically attractive.

“For instance, the recent eight per cent average increase in oil, gas and electricity prices has meant that people who generate their own power are making greater savings than they anticipated.

“We have also installed on a lot of local churches, community halls and other public buildings, and this is an increasing trend.”

A handful of schools around the area have already been looking to ease some of their budget pressures by installing panels, while the Church is embracing solar opportunities, too.

The Diocese of Bath and Wells recently instigated a new policy which has seen it install solar panels on 61 of its vicarages. Church leaders estimate the scheme could bring in up to �2.3million over the coming 25 years.

And on a grander scale, North Somerset is beginning to prove a tempting proposition for solar firms looking to generate energy in bulk.

Lightsource Renewable Energy, for example, has been building a substantial solar farm across nearly four hectares at Twin Elm Farm in Congresbury’s Stock Lane.

It is home to more than 5,000 solar panels, and will produce enough energy to power almost 350 households a year – the equivalent to 80 per cent of the homes in Congresbury.

To put carbon savings into context, the panels will annually save the amount of carbon equal to that generated by driving 65 large family cars non-stop for a year.

The firm says it chose Congresbury after extensive research focusing on the technical feasibility of the site, proximity to the national grid and planning issues, as well as natural screening.

Solar development also represented a chance to diversify the land use, and the power generation will not be the only business sited there – some 24,000 free-range chickens will remain at home amid the panels.

Unlike wind farm developments, which often provoke staunch opposition from neighbours fearing their noise and visual impact, solar energy is often positively received – and the Congresbury scheme prompted just a single objection.

It is now earmarked for a 25-year operational lifespan, after which it will be dismantled and recycled – and Lightsource chief executive Nick Boyle believes such developments are key to Britain’s green energy revolution.

He told the Times: “It has been made very clear in recent times that solar is a key component in the UK’s drive towards its renewable energy targets.

“Renewable energy sources and schemes such as this to be implemented in Congresbury need to become an integral part of our domestic power output if we are to achieve the Government’s target of 30 per cent of the UK’s electricity being generated from renewable sources by 2020.”

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