Soham Solar Plans Await Government Subsidy Announcement

waiting07:22 Wednesday 4th December 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[P]AUL STAINTON: There are plans for a 50 acre solar farm at Soham. It will produce enough electricity for 3,000 homes and save over 4,000 tons of carbon. Cambridgeshire County Council are fully behind the plans, but could council green energy projects be under threat? The Government are expected to announce later that subsidies for on-shore wind farms and solar power are to be cut as part of big changes to support for renewable energy. Well John MacMillan is Rural Estate Manager at Cambridgeshire County Council. John, morning.
JOHN MACMILLAN: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Well, what’s the point then? If that’s going to happen, you’re not going to make any money out of this, are you?

JOHN MACMILLAN: Well if the figures don’t work, we won’t proceed with it. It’s as simple as that. The Council’s plans for the solar farm are very much an investment decision, and if we can’t make money out of it for the people of Cambridgeshire, it won’t go forward.
PAUL STAINTON: What are the plans as they stand at the moment?
JOHN MACMILLAN: The plans are for a 50 acre solar farm at Soham, on part of the County’s 34,000 acre estate. We haven’t reached the planning application stage at the moment. At the moment we’re about to carry out assessments to see what the impact will be on bio-diversity and archeology and other important things like that. If the Government doesn’t pull the plug on solar we would hope to make a planning application some time in the Spring or the Summer.
PAUL STAINTON: What sort of land are you putting this on? Is it similar to the potential plans in Newborough? Is it farmland?
JOHN MACMILLAN: It’s farmland. It’s Grade 3 farmland, so in Cambridgeshire that’s lower quality land.
PAUL STAINTON: Not quite like Newborough then, which is I believe Grade 1.
JOHN MACMILLAN: I’ve no idea about Newborough.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. So has there been much support for this, or much opposition locally?
JOHN MACMILLAN: It’s been in the press. We haven’t had a lot of negative comment so far. But there would be quite wide public consultation the further on we go.
PAUL STAINTON: How are you funding it? Because I know in Peterborough they’re borrowing a heck of a lot of money to build it. Will you be doing the same?
JOHN MACMILLAN: Yes. If it does go ahead, that’s what we will be doing as well. The cost of a 50 acre farm is something like £10 million. So provided we’re able to make a sufficient margin out of the proposal, we’ll go ahead. So if we borrow at say 4%, we would hope to make a return of 9%, 10%, something like that.
PAUL STAINTON: Why are you doing it?
JOHN MACMILLAN: Why? Well we’re doing it to improve the financial returns on the estate, which goes straight back into supporting council services. So that’s why we’re doing it.
PAUL STAINTON: If this does go ahead, if the sums do add up after what the Government’s had to say today, will this be the first of many?
JOHN MACMILLAN: Unlikely. We’ve had a good hard look around our estate on Grade 3 land or below, and we’ve only managed to find one site that’s suitable.
PAUL STAINTON: Will you not even think about going higher, maybe Grade 2 land, Grade 1 land?
JOHN MACMILLAN: Not necessarily, because that would be a political decision. But I think the other limiting factor in Cambridgeshire is the grid connections. There were two other sites that we were interested in, but the grid connections were so expensive that they were ruled out. So the grid connection in Cambridgeshire, the National Grid, is a very limiting factor.
PAUL STAINTON: And what’s the time scale on all of this?
JOHN MACMILLAN: The timescale? If everything goes according to plan, I don’t think it will be happening until 2015 at the earliest. That’s because the National Grid are carrying out some work in the Soham area, and they’re not ready for us to plug it in next year at all. So it could be 2015, depending on what the Government’s changes mean.
PAUL STAINTON: We wait with bated breath, to see what those changes are, as I’m sure you will John.
JOHN MACMILLAN: Yes.
PAUL STAINTON: John, thank you very much. John MacMillan, Rural Estate Manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, with some details on the plans for that 50 acre solar farm at Soham. But as he says, they’re very dependent on what the Government has to say today. because they’re talking about perhaps cutting the subsidies to on-shore wind farms and solar farms. That might have an effect on the plans for Wittering and in particular the plans for Newborough and Thorney as well.