What are the on-going challenges when operating a solar farm? article banner image

Sonya Bedford, partner and head of the renewable energy team at Stephens Scown Solicitors, looks at the lessons learnt from existing projects.

What are the main issues that clients encounter during the operational lifespan of a solar farm?

The main issues are those that deal with inverters and grid connections. The inverters are the only part of a solar panel that will need to be replaced during the farm’s lifetime (around every 8-10 years). The modules may also need to be cleaned if there is an extended period of dry weather, or if they are sited in areas with high bird populations. Some of the grid connections are constrained, and this can give rise to problems with overheating and/or thermal property issues. It is still very early days in the lifecycle of solar farms, but if a situation was to arise where they were not being maintained properly, we might expect to see grass and weeds overshadowing the panels. Changing funders’ requirements also often raise issues, as outlined in the Harvesting the sun – setting up a solar farm

How is the price for generated energy controlled for solar farms?

The electricity generated is sold onto the wholesale electricity market via a power purchase agreement (PPA). The price that can be achieved is influenced in the main by seasonality, weather and the electricity demand versus the electricity generated balance. The electricity from a solar farm also attracts financial support in the shape of renewables obligation certificates (ROCS). ROCS can be described as the share out to the renewables sector of fines placed on the very large energy companies for generating power from non-renewable sources.

What protections can clients put in place to ensure the ongoing viability of a solar farm?

A good operations and maintenance contract is vital. The site, of course, needs to be run well and accreditation with Ofgem needs to be secure, as does a long term PPA if possible. Developers need to be able to take over from the landowner if the landowner has taken on the maintenance of a good solar park. Proper insurance policies, including guaranteed performance, are important, as is inverter replacement and monitoring of degradation.

What can lawyers do to protect/assist throughout the lifespan of the project?

Lawyers with a specialist knowledge of the sector can provide valuable input and advice at every stage of a project. This can include guidance on: o project values o exclusivity agreements o options o leases o construction contracts o operation and maintenance (O&M) agreements o performance warranties o PPAs o planning guidance, and o Ofgem accreditation Often funders’ requirements are varied and if the documents are well drafted, less will be required during the lifespan of the projects. The oldest solar park in this country to date is not yet four years old. The best way to ensure the project has a good lifespan is to make sure the documents are correct from the outset and that ongoing maintenance is thoroughly documented. To date, problems that have arisen on constructed sites include: o trees falling (responsibility for the damage caused) o those which concern the electrical circuit–where it fails to generate as much electricity as was predicted (this is usually due to poor installation) o problems with some of the site security, and o weather issues (ie flooding and reinstatement of the ground underneath the solar farm)

This article was first published on Lexis®PSL Environment September 2014. Click for a free trial of Lexis®PSL.

Sonya Bedford is a partner and head of renewable energy at Stephens Scown LLP in Exeter. She is a non-executive director of Regen SW and a director of Exeter Community Energy. To contact Sonya please call 01392 210700 or email renewables@stephens-scown.co.uk