Bre National Solar Centre. A case study

5 minutes with Bre National solar Centre.

The NSC moved into the Eden Project in 2013. What prompted the move?

It was a great partnership between BRE (our parent company) and the Eden Project. Eden are fairly choosey about who they partner with, but with our technical background and ambition for projects, it made sense to be here. Eden are about the education and the heart and mind side of things, and we’re all about the technical side of sustainable living, so it’s a good partnership in that respect. We alsorent office space here, which contributes towards their finances as well.

Was it an easy transition?

Yes, just a case of getting our head office connected on the network and getting to know the place. The team here have been fantastic in making us welcome. There’s lots going on here; we’re currently in the process of developing our Smart Solar Test Site. Eden have been great in terms of facilitating the site and looking after planting, ground & tree management etc.

Tell us about the Smart Solar Test Site

The planning application is in with Cornwall Council (and supported by Eden), and we should have a decision by June. We’re confident that it will go through; it’s a fairly small site and we’ve worked very closely with the local community to consider impacts to biodiversity, access, noise etc. Essentially, it will be an arrangement of ground mounted panels and battery storage systems which we can test side by side under UK conditions, light levels and typical UK electricity load profiles for homes. The potential is there for innovative Cornish companies with new products. A number of local companies are doing solar storage, like Wattstor in St Austell. It’s a case of being able to showcase their products and help their product development process by actually having it in use on a living, breathing test site.

How are you improving the implementation of solar technology?

We provide good practice guides on three topics relevant to large-scale solar farms – Planning, Biodiversity and Agriculture. Planning is about finding the best application with regards to visual impact, land use, heritage and archaeology; it also covers the construction process. We reduce the visual impact of solar farms by recommending that they be built on flat land, well screened by hedges and trees where they aren’t overlooked and can’t be seen from roads or housing. Ideally, the land is either reclaimed or low grade agricultural.

With the Biodiversity Guide, we show how you can actually utilise land used for solar farms. Our Biodiversity Management Plan encourages the development of nature through the introduction of bees, wildflower planting, nesting boxes and log piles. With that document, we have really good partners including the Eden Project, RSPB, the National Trust, Birdlife, Plantlife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust; we launched the plans at Kew Gardens.

The Agricultural document was written with the National Farmers Union, and is about maintaining good agricultural practices in relation to solar farms by incorporating sheep, chickens and geese. These animals aren’t capable of damaging panels and cables, but they can actively manage grasslands for solar farms located in fields.

All of these guides have been very well received, and we’re working on two new ones –Community Engagement and Archaeology. The Archaeology guide is interesting, because there have been significant finds where people have been developing solar farms that otherwise wouldn’t have been discovered. We’ve been able to coordinate with local government and archaeologists to work around discoveries, and there have been scientifically significant finds which have been really exiting for archaeologists, like a Neolithic cursus discovered near Exmoor. This has significantly contributed to the knowledge of that particular area of archaeology. In cases like this, the developer works around the site, changing their plans to protect the finds. These guides have a lot of applications in Cornwall, but also nationally as well.

How have you integrated solar technology into local businesses?

With our plans on how to manage biodiversity, and by teaching how solar farms can turn into natural assets. There’s a perception that solar farms are an industrialisation of the countryside, but our view is that if you do them properly, on flat, well screened sites, you can greatly benefit biodiversity, which can have a knock-on impact in terms of agricultural productivity in surrounding areas, particularly with pollination.

What do you think the future holds for solar energy?

It’s bright. There’s always been a lot of opportunity in solar, and it has just been a question of picking those opportunities. We aim to continue the operation of the NSC without relying on European Funding and maintain BRE’s operation here in the Southwest and Cornwall. We’re focusing on solar storage, technical issues to do with grid access, and the application of solar energy with electric vehicles. Energy storage is the main one, on all scales from domestic up to utility. We’re working on some research projects with both areas at the moment. We coordinate with a really wide range, from manufacturers to solar installers to community projects. We’re actually on course to exceed the number of Cornish SME (small-medium enterprise) company assists that we originally pledged to do. We’ve done about 12 of these assists for community projects so far, working with energy sharers locally to link up with their funding mechanisms, and now some of these community projects have installed solar panels on their roofs, so they’re saving energy and electricity and generating revenue to invest in other community projects. We’ve held events for these SMEs about Smart Solar, storage, electric vehicles and grid issues.

Monday 1 June 2015