Notts pits become solar energy parks
SHERWOOD Energy Village, built on the site of Ollerton pit, has long been touted as a shining example of how Nottinghamshire's former coal mines can be brought back into productive use.
But now three more redundant colliery sites are also being brought back to life – and all of them, aptly, to make energy again.
Landowner Harworth Estates has submitted planning applications to build large so-called "solar farms" on land at Bilsthorpe, Gedling and Welbeck.
If the plans get the go-ahead, these sites will become major producers of green energy in a Nottinghamshire landscape once dominated by coal production.
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The Bilsthorpe site, for example, would be producing electricity from three sources: methane, wind and solar. Edwinstowe-based company Alkane Energy already extracts methane from the underground mine workings, turning the gas into electricity, and a new wind farm of five turbines, each up to 100m tall, is being built at Bilsthorpe by Peel Energy.
Alkane also opened a methane extraction plant at Gedling in June and the building of a solar farm there by Harworth Estates would give the site, within the Nottingham conurbation, a combined output of more than 8.5MW of green electricity.
The site last produced coal in 1991. Welbeck ceased production in 2010, the headstocks being demolished last year. Bilsthorpe colliery closed in 1997, four years after Ollerton pit, which later became celebrated for its community-led regeneration of energy-efficient homes and businesses.
If the new plans for the other three sites get the go-ahead, construction and maintenance of the solar arrays by development partners Juwi and RE-Fin Solar should support "dozens" of jobs, according to Harworth Estates' development manager, Gary Owens. And many of these jobs should go to local people. "The employment of local people is not an obligation but it is certainly something we are pushing in our development plans," he said. "It will obviously be good for the local economy to recruit local tradesman and so on."
Although the actual job creation at static solar arrays may seem relatively small-scale, it is arguable that redeveloping these former industrial sites for green energy is one of the easiest low-cost uses for them. Gedling, for example, has been the subject of several ambitious regeneration plans that have fallen through. Yet the advantages of these colliery sites are that they are large, may already have industrial planning consent attached to them and in some cases have infrastructure present. Indeed, at Welbeck, a rail branch line still leads into the old colliery.
Ground contamination can also make these brownfield sites more problematic for new buildings.
According to Professor Colin Snape, who is a fossil fuels expert at the University of Nottingham, more former coal mines will probably be used for green energy in the years ahead. Alkane Energy, for example, also extracts methane from the former pit at Calverton, while Harworth Estates is pursuing a 36-hectare solar farm project at the former Askern colliery, near Doncaster. "These represent excellent regeneration examples of former mine sites, generating significant amounts of renewable energy," Prof Snape told Business Post.
"I'm sure we will see more springing up at former coal mines in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere in the next few years as incentives remain in place to encourage more renewable energy production."
These financial incentives – or subsidies – are the other big factor that makes the construction of solar farms attractive to developers and investors.
Last year, another application to build a solar farm at Gedling was withdrawn when the Government reduced its subsidies to Feed-in Tariffs, which pays renewable energy suppliers for the power they produce.
The applicant, mO3 Power, said at the time that the reduction in incentives, and the uncertainty in the market, made its plan unfeasible.
So what now makes big solar schemes at Gedling and the other two colliery sites financially attractive to Harworth Estates and its partners? Apart from low site development costs, there are two reasons. The first is that the costs of solar panels have plummeted to around half of what they used to be over the past few years. This reduction was what prompted ministers to reduce the subsidies paid to generators in the first place.
But the second reason is that the financial support for these solar farms will not come from the Feed-in Tariffs but from Renewable Obligations Certificates, or ROCs, which are aimed at bigger renewable energy schemes.
Like Feed-in Tariffs, ROCs are designed to incentivise green energy production and are awarded to generators according to how much electricity they produce.
These certificates are sold to suppliers, which demonstrate to the regulator Ofgem that they are fulfilling their obligation to obtain a proportion of their electricity from renewable sources.
Although the Government has recently proposed reducing ROC incentives from April 1 next year, the system remains the main incentive for large-scale renewable projects producing more than 5MW of power. The scheme is also currently guaranteed to last until 2037, which aims to offer a degree of long-term certainty to investors.
All three of the Harworth Estate solar farms qualify for the scheme: Gedling will generate 5.5MW, Bilsthorpe will produce 9.8MW while Welbeck is designed to generate 12.2MW. It adds up to enough power to supply 7,000 homes – and a good many ROCs that can be sold to the big electricity suppliers.
Support for green electricity through ROCs currently totals £2bn a year in the UK and has helped push the proportion of green electricity up to 9.4% of the total. The target is 15% by 2020.
Harworth Estate's development partners at the three sites are Juwi Renewable Energies and Re-FIN Solar. Juwi is a big German solar design, construction and financing company that employs 1,750 people world-wide and has revenues of $1bn a year. Its head office in Worrstadt, Germany, claims to be the most energy-efficient office in the world.