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A Manchester-based lawyer at boutique commercial law firm Heatons LLP has this week completed a deal for the procurement of what is believed to be one of the first large scale solar parks in the UK.

Construction partner James Flynn, who specialises in the renewable energy sector, advised client SOLON SE, one of the largest manufacturers of solar modules in Europe, on the agreement with Rockspring Property Investment Managers. Rockspring owns the site of the plant, part of an old RAF airfield at Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire.

SOLON will be responsible for the design, construction operation and maintenance of the plant, as well as the manufacture and delivery of the solar modules themselves.  Construction work on the site has already begun and is due to complete in June this year. The park is expected to deliver a peak power output of around 408 kilowatts.

James said:

“This deal represents one of the few large-scale solar projects to go ahead in the UK following the Government’s publication of its plans to reduce the Feed In Tariff for large scale solar plants.  It is fantastic that the parties involved have managed to continue with this project.  We hope this will encourage others within the industry to follow suit, and that the project can be used as an example with which to encourage Government to change its attitude to large scale solar projects.

“At a time when many larger solar projects have been scrapped, this deal sends out the clear message that large European solar specialists like SOLON remain dedicated to helping UK businesses develop renewable energy projects.”

James added that Heatons continues to build on its service offering to the renewable energy sector:

“As a firm, Heatons has consistently demonstrated its commitment to the renewable energy industry.  We are now at the cutting edge of this sector, having also advised on the country’s first project funded AD (anaerobic digestion) plant, and we hope to continue to use our experience to help get these projects financed and built,” he said.


The early review of the UK solar feed-in tariff has caused consternation within the industry, still in its infancy and reliant on the tariff for log term viability. Chris Huhne, Secretary of the Department of Energy and Climate Change made the announcement this week that the FIT would be reviewed in light of the “threat” to the scheme posed by large scale solar projects which have begun to take advantage of the scheme. This combined with the recent spending review which will make it necessary to cut 10 per cent from the tariff rates.

The feed-in tariff was introduced as a means of attracting investment in solar energy and greatly increasing uptake in solar pv panels in the UK. The tariff works by offering guaranteed, premium rates for units of energy both consumed and fed back into the grid for small scale renewable energy producers. This tariff has been very successful at attracting investors and manufacturers alike, all keen to tap into the revenue which can be generated from the feed-in tariff. However, Huhne believes that the feed-in tariff has perhaps been too attractive with a number of large solar farms developing under the system. The DECC secretary stated,

“Since the Spending Review, I have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of large scale solar PV projects under FITs, which . . . could, if left unchecked, take a disproportionate amount of available funding or even break the cap on total funding,”

Solar Trade Association spokesman, Howard Johns lamented this news saying,

This is really bad news for the solar industry in the UK. Last week Ministers welcomed the study showing that 17,000 jobs would be created by the industry in 2011. This week has seen them once again changing the goal posts and threatening investment and jobs in the sector.”

Unfortunately the solar industry is not a level playing field at present.  The Chinese government has provided some enormous loans to their top PV manufacturers (e.g.  These manufacturers are using the money for incredibly rapid expansion so that they are fast outgrowing all of their European competitors.  Being bigger means they have greater efficiency, which means the large Chinese players now have even lower costs than their foreign competitors.  There are obviously cries from US and German manufacturers about violations of international trade laws etc and indeed the situation is particularly unfair seeing as it was the German FiT that created the Chinese manufacturers in the first place, but there is little chance of any legal recourse in the near term.  The situation has led German policy makers to think about protectionist policies for solar though (‘buy German’) and provided fuel for the anti-solar lobby.

All that aside, the top-tier Chinese solar manufacturers are now producing high quality modules with lower costs than anyone else.  They have had a lot of experience with due diligence from European banks and are now pro-active in respect to quality control and bankability.  They are also beginning to invest heavily in R&D which will close the already small technology gap with Japanese and European competition.  Chinese solar manufacturers are integrating vertically in the value chain in a big way.  This means that for example cell manufacturers are starting to make wafers, silicon and modules etc. This gives them greater ability to control quality and improves margin retention.  They are also expanding downstream and bulking up sales teams in Europe with Europeans. This reduces the ‘fear factor’ of working with Chinese companies and taking revenue away from European wholesalers.  The strength of the big Chinese players is evidently putting a strain on its competition. If one had to choose between German or Chinese manufacturers as the most likely to be around in 25 years it would almost certainly be the Chinese.

It should be noted that there a number of Chinese manufacturers that do not have such high standards and should be avoided.  Many people in the solar industry are not convinced that the UK’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme is effective at weeding out these poor manufactures judging from the companies which have gotten through.  There are also lots of counterfeit modules  on the market now (for example fake Trina Solar and ET Solar modules are widespread) so its important to find installers with good checking procedures.

So does the rise of the big Chinese solar manufacturers damage the UK and make the Feed-in tariffs pointless, seeing as it will support the continued growth of unbeatable foreign competition?  I would argue that the only way to create growth in our manufacturing industry is to develop a domestic end-user market.  For a long time the UK has precious little in terms of PV manufacturing capability, which means that the strength of Chinese companies has little impact on us.  If we were not buying from China, we would be buying from elsewhere.   As the UK market grows, more people become engaged in the industry and start to look at product innovation.  Already there are a number of UK companies developing solar products specific to the UK market as a direct result of the introduction of the Feed-in tariff.

Furthermore, module manufacturing makes up only a small portion of the solar value chain.  Installing roof-top PV is highly labour intensive, and the feed-in tariffs will create a huge number of jobs in the badly suffering building services industry.  The fact that there are good quality, cheap Chinese panels available allows solar PV to be more competitive as a renewable energy source.  Costs are expected to fall rapidly over the coming years (as they have already) meaning that in around 5-6 years time the cost of solar electricity will be at par with retail electricity prices, which means the FiTs won’t be needed anymore.

Another point is that the big Chinese PV manufacturers will start doing the last manufacturing step, module integration, close to their markets.  This is because you can air freight solar cells, but you have to ship finished solar panels because of the glass (regular glass factories normally only serve a radius of 100km).  By doing module integration close to their key markets, manufacturers won’t have working capital tied up for 4 weeks and will reduce the risk of damage in transport.  Sharp already do this with a module integration plant in Wrexham, and we may well start seeing the Chinese companies open manufacturing plants in Europe, even in the UK, over the next couple of years which would provide an interesting boost to UK industry.

Eventually the playing field will level out again – China will get more expensive and there will be space for newcomers with new technologies, but for now the Chinese players clearly have the upper hand.

With many South West farmers looking to capitalise on the opportunities from renewable energy, Sonya Bedford from Stephens Scown looks at some of the key considerations you should make before rushing into an agreement for a solar park:

  • Despite relatively tight timescales, don’t give into pressure and make sure you take proper professional advice before entering into a binding agreement.
  • Be aware that some terms on offer are quite miserly – we’ve seen an option fee as low as £100 quoted. The commitment will be for a 25 – 50 year Lease (or possibly even an outright sale) and should not be entered into without proper remuneration.
  • Bear in mind that it’s desirable not only to receive a simple rent under a Lease for your land, but also to obtain a share of the revenues from the sale of electricity generated on the site. You may also be able to negotiate an electricity supply for your own property, often for no cost.
  • Be aware of any other development you might want to carry out on your land. Often leases and option agreements will include restrictions on developments adjacent to the site and which could have an effect on the performance of the solar PV arrays.
  • Ask who will remove the equipment at the end of the lease and to what extent will it be removed at all?
  • Seek professional advice about the potential tax implications. You may already have plans for mitigating Inheritance Tax, but granting an Option for a ‘solar park’ will impact on that, with reference to (where you are a farmer) the removal from agricultural use of some of your land.
  • Consider the implications on any stewardship schemes you have in place – consent from Natural England will need to be obtained
  • And if your land is mortgaged to a bank you will need to get consent to enter into long leases or sales.

Having said all this, there are exciting opportunities in the Westcountry where the solar resource is at its greatest and such opportunities should be seized, with a view to converting them into a 25 year income stream.

Sonya Bedford is Head of Renewable Energy at Stephens Scown. Visit to download a specialist guide to solar energy for farmers or call 01392 210 700.