The current dash for solar is set to end soon, at least for ground mounted projects, as the government looks set to close access to the Renewables Obligation (RO) subsidy scheme, from next April, for new large scale solar projects (above 5MW). The proposal is the subject of a DECC consultation which ends on 7 July, but the change is sure to go ahead.
All is not lost however, because these larger solar projects will be eligible for the new Contracts for Difference support scheme, but they will have to compete in auctions, with other renewable technologies.
In making these changes, the government hopes to keep the lid on its subsidy pot for solar, and to see solar developers refocus their attention away from large-scale ‘solar farming’ and onto roof-top and mid-scale (especially community led) schemes.
But perhaps Birmingham has an ace up its sleeve in all of this. With the trite ‘more canals than Venice’ marketing strap line, perhaps our city can ride a new wave of solar development with a stream of ‘canal-top solar’ projects?
Not as daft as it first sounds. Back in February, the Indian state of Gujarat announced a scheme to install solar panels over the Namada canal- 1MW initially, but just the first stage in a proposed 600MW project straddling 19km of canal.
The perceived benefits? Well, no pesky landowners to have to negotiate options and leases with. And according to the Indian developer, shielding the canal from direct sunlight will prevent water evaporation to the tune of 900,000 litres a year – which will increase water availability for crop irrigation and drinking. An added benefit is that the cooling effect of the water will keep the panels at a more efficient operating temperature.
Of course there is little new under the sun, and lake and reservoir schemes with panels on pontoons floating on the water are a growth area, with California, France and Japan leading the way. Interestingly, and particularly with California in mind, the added advantage of panels lessening water evaporation is a significant factor for areas where water resources are under greater stress.
Perhaps those benefits don’t translate quite so easily in Birmingham (although with climate change in a few years’ time who knows) - and the Canal & River Trust might have something to say, never mind the anglers and conservationists - but it’s an interesting prospect.
As a single big project, the UK subsidies here are not straightforward with the proposed changes in the offing. But perhaps structured as a series of smaller projects this idea has legs?
And it’s not just large expanses of water that present an opportunity. It’s not such a leap of imagination to envisage shoppers parking their cars in a large city centre car-park enveloped by a solar PV canopy, offering almost limitless electricity to the shops around and the electric cars plugging in for a top-up charge; the parking might even be free, or is that a step too far?
Covering our canals with a canopy of solar panels might not be the most popular of ideas, especially with local residents, Visit Birmingham and the City tourism bigwigs. True, a weekend break on a barge navigating the Worcester and Birmingham canal could get a little claustrophobic, and the views of the Gas Street Basin might not be worth writing home about, but think of the carbon footprint.