The use of solar power in the UK has been steadily growing over the past decade. With its abundant solar resources and large expanses of unused land, the UK has tremendous potential for expanding its solar energy capacity.
What are Solar Fields?
Solar fields, also known as solar farms or parks, are large collections of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels installed over a large land area. The panels convert sunlight into electricity which is fed into the grid. The scale of solar fields allows them to generate vast amounts of clean, renewable energy.
- Solar fields comprise thousands of solar panels arranged in rows on the ground.
- The panels are mounted on racks that allow them to track the sun’s movement.
- The electricity generated flows into inverters which convert the power from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC).
- The AC electricity is then fed into the grid through electrical substations.
Growth of Solar Fields in the UK
The amount of solar energy capacity in the UK has increased in recent years:
- Total installed solar capacity has risen from under 1 GW in 2010 to over 13 GW in 2020.
- In 2020, solar generated more electricity (13.3 TWh) than wind power (12.2 TWh) for the first time.
- There are now over 1,000 medium to large-scale solar farms in operation.
- The UK solar industry employs over 10,000 people.
Falling costs and supportive government incentives like Feed-in Tariffs have driven this remarkable growth. The UK is now amongst the top ten countries globally for total installed solar capacity.
Benefits of Expanding Solar Energy
Greatly expanding solar fields across the UK would provide many significant benefits:
- Clean, renewable energy – Solar PV produces no greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Expanding solar energy is vital for reducing the UK’s carbon emissions.
- Energy security – Producing more solar energy domestically reduces the UK’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. This increases energy independence and resilience.
- Jobs and investment – Constructing and operating new solar fields would create thousands of jobs and attract major investment into renewable energy infrastructure across the UK.
- Cost reductions – As solar capacity expands, costs continue to fall due to economies of scale and technology improvements. This makes solar increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
- Grid stability – Solar energy can help meet peak electricity demand on hot, sunny days when AC demand surges. This reduces strain on the grid.
Potential Locations for New Solar Fields
There are many suitable locations across the UK for building large new solar fields:
- Southern England has excellent solar resources due to higher levels of sunshine. Solar potential is 30-40% higher in the south vs the north.
- Abandoned industrial sites like old airfields offer flat, open land ideal for utility-scale solar parks.
- Barren grazing lands and open meadows provide underutilized agricultural areas that are well-suited.
- Landfill sites and contaminated brownfield locations are good options since solar panels occupy land unusable for other purposes.
- Reservoirs, mining lakes, and fish farms offer large water bodies where floating solar PV arrays can be installed without occupying any land.
Challenges Facing Expansion of Solar Energy
While the potential is enormous, expanding solar fields faces some challenges that must be addressed:
- Planning permissions must account for local environmental and community impacts like visual appearance, biodiversity, and farmland usage.
- Grid infrastructure upgrades are essential in many regions to handle added solar capacity. Interconnection costs can also be high.
- Energy storage is needed to capture excess daytime solar generation for peak evening demand when solar output is low.
- Technical issues like grid management of intermittent generation and emerging solar PV recycling needs must be managed.
How much land do solar fields require?
A typical 10MW solar farm requires around 40 acres of land. Larger solar parks can cover hundreds of acres. However, the land can still be used for grazing sheep and other agricultural purposes.
How much do solar fields cost to build?
Solar field costs range from £500,000 to £2 million per megawatt capacity, including panels, inverters, racking systems, electrical equipment, and installation labor. Larger solar parks can benefit from economies of scale and have lower per MW costs.
How much electricity can a solar field generate?
Solar fields in the UK have a typical capacity factor of around 11%. This means a 10MW solar park can generate around 9,500 MWh of electricity annually. The amount generated varies by location and weather conditions each year.
Can solar fields work in the UK’s cloudy climate?
Solar PV works fine even in cloudy conditions and is not dependent on direct sunshine. Diffuse light passing through cloud cover will still generate electricity. Solar fields across Germany and northern Europe demonstrate solar energy’s viability in temperate, cloudy climates.
How long do solar panels last?
Modern solar panels have a useful lifespan of around 25-30 years on average. Inverters and other electrical equipment are replaced more frequently. Decommissioned solar panels can be recycled.
What happens to solar fields at night?
Solar fields don’t generate any electricity at night. Grid power from other sources like gas, nuclear, wind, and energy storage provides power when solar output is low.