Love them or loathe them, there is an obvious logic to locating windfarms in the wilder and windier northern parts of the British Isles.
But the news this week that not only has a field in Moray been approved as the site for the UK’s biggest solar farm but another, bigger, one is on the cards has raised more than a few eyebrows.
It might blow a lot in the north and north-east of Scotland, the thinking goes, but surely the sun doesn’t shine all that much?
Not so, say the experts ploughing huge sums into harnessing the region’s rays – including via the Speyslaw solar farm near Urquhart with its 80,000 panels covering the equivalent of 40 football pitches.
In the past, the perception that solar isn’t a good fit for Scotland has caused it to struggle to gain investment and meaningfully compete with other types of renewable energy.
It’s frustrating for those who work in the industry, and know the science behind solar, to have to battle this misconception almost on a daily basis.
Onshore and offshore wind dominate the renewable energy field in the region, a conspicuous feature on the landscape and largely government supported.
Tidal energy seemed to falter at first, but the news that the Meygen P1A, the world’s largest tidal array situated in the Pentland Firth, generated 1GW of energy to the grid last week shows it has serious potential.
In truth, however, the P&J area – and notably Moray – has an enviable pedigree when it comes to this form of energy.
AES Solar, based in Forres, have been manufacturing solar thermal collectors since 1979 under the stewardship of managing director, George Goudsmit.
He explained why this part of the world is in fact perfectly suited to the solar. “It’s a gorgeous technology. We don’t need sunshine, we need light,” he said.
“This is particularly true of the technology that we use: thermal technology. The north of Scotland, and the northern hemisphere as a whole, has as much as much light as anywhere else.
“The biggest battle we have in our trade is that no one believes solar works in the UK, let alone Scotland. We’ve been going for 38 years uninterrupted and every time we instal we only get good feedback from our clients. It just a perception people have.”
The north-east easily receives the most amount of bright light in Scotland with an average of 1,433 hours a year, only slightly less than London and significantly more than Birmingham.
Dr Roger Brugge, senior support scientist at Reading University’s department of meteorology corroborates the notion that it is an ideal location.
“The east side of Scotland is sunnier than the west side. The prevailing wind is from the west to the south-west, so the wind blows over the mountains where the cloud and rain falls and then the air starts to descend on the eastern side and as it starts to descend it warms up and any cloud will clear.”
“They’ve clearly chosen (the Moray area for the Speyslaw solar farm) because the population is less so you can build something of that size. From that point of view, you pick your area of the country and go as far east as you possibly can.” The case for solar in the more northerly reaches of Scotland is further made by the amount of householders installing solar panels on their roofs to exploit the abundant amount of natural light.
According to the Solar Trade Association, Aberdeen gets 17 hours of uninterrupted light during the summer months, a whole hour more than the south of England.
George Alexander, leader of Moray Council, believes that the north-east is a natural fit for solar power in the UK. He said: “One of the earliest facts I ever learned about Moray was that its rainfall was the lowest in Scotland. I think you can assume from that the degree of light is probably going to be higher as well. We are fortunate in this north-east corner.
“We also have a phenomenal number of householders who’ve opted to put solar panels on their roofs. Which would indicate that it is a viable project.”
However, despite today’s announcement, some in the industry don’t feel that solar operates on a level playing field when it comes to renewable energy. The misconception that Scotland doesn’t get enough sunlight eats into how much or how often people are willing to invest.
Leoni Green, of the Solar Trade Association, is irritated that solar has been effectively left to lag behind other technologies.
She said: “Solar just wants to be able to compete with other technologies. It’s absolutely in the public interest that happens. The unfairness for us is that the industry is being expected to sit there for years and wait for the economics to stack up. Meanwhile other technologies are improving their supply chains, their methods, it’s putting us at a disadvantage and it’s not fair. Solar is everywhere at the moment and it makes a lot of economic sense for Scotland.”
Mr Goudsmit remains confident however. He saw the solar photovoltaic (solar PV) market suffer as a consequence of the government incentivised feed-in tariff six years ago where householders could apply to get payment back from the amount of solar energy their house generated.
“It was out of all proportion and totally ridiculous. They also nearly killed the solar market. Now that the feed-in tariff is going down again, and it’s almost back to zero, solar thermal is picking up again. It’s a wonderful energy and it’s well proven.”