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Firm focuses on renewable energy sector with new team

A Westcountry law firm has created a new dedicated team to provide specialist advice on the renewable energy sector for the region’s farmers, land and property owners.

With the rapid growth in this market and the South West designated the UK’s first Low Carbon Economic Area, Stephens Scown has taken the step of appointing Sonya Bedford (pictured) as its new Head of Renewable Energy.

The specialist group, made up of experienced property, corporate and planning lawyers, are able to give legal advice on a range of matters including agricultural tenancies and compensation for loss of farming activities, options, leases and contractual issues.

The announcement comes as the firm, which has offices in Exeter, Truro and St Austell, launches a new specialist guide on solar energy, aimed at farmers and landowners, available on its website.

The sector is estimated to contribute around £215 million to the economy every year – many farmers and landowners are being approached by renewable energy providers and might be considering diversifying or supplementing their income, following the introduction of feed-in tariffs earlier this year.

Commenting on the new team, Sonya Bedford said, “Increasingly we’re acting for clients with a really diverse range of needs in the renewable energy sector – this includes local farmers and landowners, domestic property owners, major wind farm developers and operators, as well assisting villages or communities across the region to install wind turbines or solar panels. We are also involved in advising on property issues surrounding the Wave Hub site in Hayle.”

She added, “Working with local planning experts, accountants and other financial advisers, it makes sense to bring together all our expertise in one place to provide a more rounded service for clients. Here in the South West, because of our geographic position we’re really lucky to be able to harness the natural energy that surrounds us and renewable energy is ideally suited to rural areas.”

Sonya is an experienced senior agricultural and commercial property lawyer and is a member of Stephens Scown’s rural team. She is a Member of the Agricultural Law Association, a member of Regen SW and a Professional Member of the CLA and Member of Women in Property.

She added, “Landowners can reap the financial rewards that renewable energy brings but it’s equally important that people get the right advice to protect their assets. It’s a development area that many people are starting to explore, but can be easily caught out by the small print or enter into agreements without seeking proper professional advice.”

For more help or advice on renewable energy, contact Sonya Bedford on 01392 210700 or email or visit

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September 28 2010

For more information contact:

Ryan Martinez
Deborah Clark Associates
Tel: 01208 77900

Germany, perhaps the greatest success story for solar energy and a leading exponent and pioneer of the now widely employed feed-in tariff is seriously considering re-thinking its backing of renewable energy. Cuts in German feed-in tariffs while not welcomed by solar investors or those simply looking to make a quick Euro in green energy, are of course necessary and an important mechanism in regulating what can be an explosive sector.

Feed-in tariffs work by offering fixed, premium rates for renewable energy generated and used by small scale generation projects. While Germany has been a world leader in solar energy generation on the back of generous tariffs, it now seems that it in the current climate of austerity, the German government is perhaps rethinking its legislative bias towards green energy projects.

In a statement issued by Environment minister Norbert Roettgen, it certainly appears that the current stance is unequivocally pragmatic when it comes to backing solar energy over more traditional fuel sources. Indeed, pragmatism turned Teutonic bluntness when questioned on plans to further reinforce legislation designed at boosting solar investment,

“We’re in talks with the solar power sector to come to a reasonable further development. Those who want renewable energy should keep in mind that there is a need for society’s acceptance of it,”

Of course, while there is a need to regulate the the solar market in order to prevent a situation similar to Spain where the market became saturated, the fact remains that feed-in tariffs do not come out of the public funds. Instead, they come from the big utility companies obliged by legislation to purchase the units of renewable energy at the rate set by the tariff. This goes to add weight to the argument against reducing tariffs too drastically in Germany. Certainly, protectionism of certain industries at the expense of others is questionable but the figures for renewable energy in Germany speak for themselves.

Reports from the German finance ministry have shown that the revenue from renewable manufacturers alone came to over 16 billion Euros in 2009. In the same year around 294,000 Germans were employed in renewable energy with 64,000 of these working in solar energy. With these employment figures in mind and the fact that in Germany there is a real appetite for renewable energy investment, it would be politically naïve for any government to make too dramatic a cutback to tariff rates, even during these times of draconian spending measures.

Ofgem’s Sustainable Development Focus has released figures showing that in the first 6 months of feed-in tariffs in the UK, over 11,000 generator have registered for the tariff, marking a considerable surge in solar photovoltaic installations in particular. Indeed, with 11,352 renewable systems installed, it indicates that the scheme has been more successful than predicted, with enough output to power around 35,000 homes.

Feed-in tariffs work by offering fixed, premium rates for both the energy generated from renewable systems (which is then fed-back into the grid), and the energy used. When first introduced by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), it was with the intention of incentivising investment in green energy by off-setting the costs of installing renewable energy systems by creating long term, guaranteed yields from the projects. Emulating schemes applied successfully abroad, it seems that in the first 6 months of operation, the tariffs have certainly been effective as a means of boosting renewable installations across the UK.

In order to get the UK grid network fully up to speed with the complex requirements of a low-carbon economy, the Sustainable Development Focus Report also published its proposals for updating the country’s network. Working on a framework of Revenue= Incentives+ Innovation+ Outputs (RIIO), Ofgem is planning on generating £32 billion of investment much needed to upgrade a UK national grid not yet ready for green energy and the mechanisms set up around it.

Alistair Buchanan of Ofgem wrote in a foreword to the report,

“This is the biggest change to the regulatory framework for 20 years and sets the network companies on a path to playing their full role in the transition to a low-carbon economy while delivering value for money for all consumers.”

Solar panels are by far the most expensive item in a solar panel installation. Understanding the features that differentiate a good solar panel from a bad one is not so straightforward. In several instalments I’d like to give a guide to each of the key criteria to look out for. I will try keep it as simple as possible but it is something that many people ask me about so I think it isn’t a bad idea to discuss these issues in some depth.

First of all I’d like to discuss solar panel efficiency. This defines how effective a solar panel is in converting sunlight into electricity for a given surface area. The advantage of having a higher efficiency solar panel is that you can get more power out of a small available area. For this reason, high efficiency solar panels are normally priced at a premium and targeted at the domestic market where space is most constrained. High efficiency does not necessarily mean better quality or reliability however – these issues are covered later. Nor does higher efficiency mean better value; in many cases lower efficiency panels are used because they are more cost-effective in places where space utilisation is not so critical.

First of all, how do you find out the efficiency of a solar panel? It’s easy to find out this out for yourself. Remember that the power of a solar panel is given by the power you get out under ‘standard test conditions.’ This means the output is measure when the panel is exposed to a very bright light with an intensity of 1000 Watts per square meter (1000W/m2) at a temperature of 25oC. This is normally expressed in Watts (e.g. 185W or 230W etc) and is the power you will get when the sun is very strong. You can then multiply the module length and width (which is shown on the datasheet) to get the module area. By taking the module power in Watts and the standard test conditions of 1000W/m2 you can determine the module efficiency as follows;

Efficiency = power out / power in = module power / (width x length x 1000W/m2)

When evaluating solar panel efficiency its important to be aware that each solar cell has an efficiency higher than that of the whole solar panel (or module) due to empty space. Therefore make sure to find out which value you are looking at.

In general solar panels you will come across in the UK will be made of silicon (I have discussed thin film panels previously) so the discussion here will focus on these. The highest efficiency silicon solar panels on the market today are between 17% and 18% efficient. The efficiency of silicon solar panels is increasing due to R&D, but improvements are incremental and slow because there are a number of fundamental limitations to the efficiency of silicon solar cells which mean that any drastic improvements in the near future are unlikely. Perhaps I will describe those limitations in another article.

The main factor you will come across that affects module efficiency is whether the module is mono or multi-crystalline. In English this means that the solar cells can easy be made from mono or multi-crystalline silicon. Mono crystalline solar cells consist of a slice of a single, very pure silicon crystal and hence are very efficient due to few defects. Multi-crystalline solar cells, which comprise multiple crystals, are around 1-2% less efficient but are generally more cost-effective to produce. Personally I think it generally makes sense to use mono-crystalline cells for domestic installations where space is at a premium and multi-crystalline cells for larger installations.

Another factor that can affect efficiency is anti-reflective coatings. These are becoming more and more common. Nearly all solar cells have texturing directly on top of them that reduces reflection and now many solar panels come with anti-reflective glass. This generally consists of a textured glass that can be seen as a speckled pattern if you look closely. The improvement of anti-reflective coatings is hard to determine, although some manufacturers claim energy yield enhancements of over 5 percent.

When installing a solar panel system your ultimate goal should always be to get the best return on your investment, which means getting the most power for the lowest price without risking reliability and is dependent on many factors besides efficiency. Whilst there are a number of other technologies on the horizon that can be used to improve efficiency by small amounts, nothing will create a drastic change overnight. Prices of solar panels will continue to fall rapidly as production volume increases (in the same way as many other technology products such as computer memory) but these price falls will be matched by reductions in the feed-in tariff. Therefore don’t worry that installing today’s technology risks being superseded by a miracle solar panel tomorrow. Working in the industry gives you pretty good insight as to what is coming down the line.