Science & Environment

Is solar power best kept small?

Michael Eavis at Worthy Farm
Michael Eavis installed solar panels at Worthy Farm in 2010

Community energy projects are the right way to keep the lights on, the head of a solar co-operative in Wedmore, Somerset, has told the BBC.

His thoughts are echoed by the man behind the Glastonbury festival, Michael Eavis.

People are concerned about the dominance of the "Big Six" energy companies, they say.

Rob Richley of the Wedmore Community Power Co-operative was speaking following the government's announcement of cuts in subsidies to solar and onshore wind energy.

£800,000 was needed to build the community "solar paddocks". The funds have been raised by selling shares. More than half of the investors are locals.

The array is placed beneath an overhead transmission line. Power is fed straight into the grid and used by the villagers.

It is small-scale: Spread over six acres, 4,000 solar panels produce one mega watt. That compares to many commercial sites that can produce tens of mega watts.

Investors are expected to see a 9% return on their investment.

Profits made by the co-operative will be returned to the community. That will mean an estimated £600,000 for local charities over the next 25 years.

The key driver is climate change. "We want to increase energy security by making power locally," says Mr Richley.

"People see the sense in it."

One investor is local historian Hazel Hudson. "It's quite fun to put money into something really green," she says.

"I felt a tremendous sense of pride as we marched up there to open up the panels. You felt that this is what everyone should be doing."

Will the changes in subsidies to renewables affect the co-operative? Mr Richley doesn't believe so. "The government has been very supportive of community projects like ours. This is aimed at the mega-farms," he says.

Some 10 miles away is Worthy Farm, the site of the Glastonbury festival. Michael Eavis put solar panels on the roof of his cow shed (or "mootel" ) in 2010. Then, it was the biggest private solar-power farm in the UK.

"We have been worried about climate change and the sea levels rising for 40 years," he tells BBC News.

"It felt like I had to make a serious statement about energy. I can't believe it's worked so well. It's so efficient."

But for Mr Eavis it's not solar at all costs. "I'm absolutely dead against putting them on the lovely green fields, the pastureland of the English countryside," he says.

Worthy Farm now generates around two-thirds of its energy it needs to operate.

The government feed-in tariff means the array also brings in around £70,000 a year.

Steven Kearle is in charge of the day-to-day running of the farm. "If you look over the last three years, we've produced more than half a million kilowatts, and we've used nearly all of that, so that's a massive saving on what we would have otherwise had to buy in," he says.

Reflecting on the news that the government is to cut its support to solar, Mr Kearle tells the BBC that the farm will now need to look at whether to put in more panels.

"It's a balance between making money and doing something good," he says.

"The key is the environment. But you can't lose money. We just want to cut out the people in the middle who do it just for profit."

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