Anyone who has seen the occasional solar farm popping up in a matter of weeks by the side of a motorway might be tempted to think that building one must be quite a straightforward process.
After all, what can be so difficult about plonking a few panels in a field and hooking them up to the nearest electricity pylons?
If ever there was a Good Energy project that blew the myth that solar was simple, it’s our newest PV plant at Brynwhilach in south Wales.
On paper, the plot of farmland just off the M4 near Swansea ticked all the boxes that our development team look for in a ground-mounted solar site:
- Strong levels of sunshine
- Generally flat with some gently south-facing slopes
- Relatively unproductive farmland to reduce any conflict with agriculture
- Close access to the electricity distribution network via nearby grid infrastructure
- Easy access for construction traffic from the nearby M4 motorway
- Few immediate neighbours to reduce potential for disruption to local residents
So once planning permission was granted in November 2014, it was all hands on deck to get the project built as soon as possible, and generating more renewable electricity for our customers.
But as it turned out, the road towards completion at Brynwhilach was anything but smooth.
Ironically, despite its proximity to an existing big substation and high voltage lines, it was the site’s connection to the grid which caused the development team its first headache.
Once they were in a position to proceed, it became clear that the local grid no longer had capacity to take the power from Brynwhilach. This would have meant the project couldn’t be built until planned grid reinforcements were complete – a potential further delay of at least two years.
It took strong collaboration with network operators Western Power Distribution and some ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking to find a solution – effectively ‘borrowing’ grid capacity for the solar farm from another renewable generation site nearby that was not due to come on stream until around 2020.
In the meantime, technical investigations revealed a further challenge owing to local ground conditions and the presence of nearby grid infrastructure. This led to another innovative solution, with part of the site being set aside for wildlife coupled with some special earthing measures, to enable the solar panels to operate safely.
All this local difficulty coincided with shockwaves across the UK renewables industry triggered by the government’s decision in late 2015 to cut subsidy support for new solar generation.
The closure of both the Feed-in-Tariff and Renewables Obligations schemes meant that, to be financially viable, the solar farm at Brynwhilach had to be complete and exporting power to the grid by the end of March 2017.
So once project finance was in place, the construction team assembled and the site ready for construction in late 2016, there was a little over three months to finish the job.
And then came the rain… Unfortunately, the site’s high average annual levels of sunshine proved no guarantee against a good Welsh winter downpour, making the already soggy ground at Brynwhilach even wetter – and muddier – still.
But the construction team of Good Energy, solar installers Goldbeck and local contractors Spencer rose to the challenge and completed the main construction and electrical works in time for the solar farm to be connected with a couple of weeks to spare before the subsidy deadline.
You can find out more about the story of the building of Brynwhilach in the short video above.
The making of Brynwhilach was made possible by the innovative thinking, collaboration and sheer dogged determination of the project team – and the support of Good Energy’s customers and shareholders.
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