Glasgow City Council is about to launch a project to identify sites for small solar farms on 400 patches of wasteland scattered across the city. The plan is to install arrays of solar panels to generate clean electricity on vacant or derelict sites owned by the council.
Despite the sun’s relatively rare appearance in the sky over Scotland’s largest city, experts say that tapping its rays for power in this way can play a vital role in ensuring a low-pollution future for Glasgow.
The initiative has been enthusiastically welcomed by renewable energy experts and companies, who see a bright future for solar power across Scotland. Edinburgh is looking at putting solar farms in disused quarries and on pit bings, and 16 major solar electricity projects have won planning approval elsewhere in Scotland in the last two years.
Scotland already has 116 megawatts of solar capacity from more than 31,000 installations, mostly panels on the roofs of peoples’ homes (see tables below). But this is now seen by many as just the start.
Glasgow council has teamed up with Strathclyde University to conduct a comprehensive survey of 550 hectares of city land that is currently not being used. Sites will be assessed for technical and policy constraints to see which ones could accommodate mini solar farms.
Solar farms are arrays of photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on the ground and designed to capture the sun’s radiation and turn it into electricity. According to the solar industry, just one hectare of panels can produce enough electricity to power up to 150 homes.
One brownfield gap site that might be suitable is the former meat market in the east end of Glasgow. Three areas covering 5.2 hectares bounded by Bellgrove Street and Duke Street will be evaluated to pinpoint where best to generate electricity.
Detailed maps of hundreds of other pockets of land across the city will be similarly assessed. The results will be published so that communities, businesses or the council can decide where to install ground-mounted PV arrays.
Some of the derelict land will have been earmarked to be sold off by the council but then stalled by the economic downturn. Other sites will be in need of remediation before they are built on, but could still be suitable for solar panels.
Councillor Alastair Watson, Glasgow City Council’s Executive Member for Sustainability, pointed out that the city was keen to boost green energy. “This project aims to identify opportunities for communities, the council and companies to bring derelict gap sites back into use as productive solar farms generating electricity,” he said.
“Glasgow may not be the sunniest city in the world but there are already hundreds of solar arrays on buildings around the city which can harness diffused sunlight to generate electricity even when it’s cloudy.”
All 700 new properties at the Commonwealth Games Athletes' Village, which will become homes for city residents when the games end, have solar arrays installed. There are also solar panels on St Benedicts Primary School in Easterhouse and Kings Park Primary School in the south of the city.
Said Watson: “We aim to become one of the most sustainable and resilient cities in Europe and are exploring the potential of a range of technologies which will help us cut emissions and secure energy supplies.”
Glasgow’s ambition, as part of its £24 million ‘Future City’ programme, is to transform itself into a more sustainable city over the next 20 years. This will include cutting carbon emissions that are disrupting the climate, encouraging renewable energy projects and increasing access to affordable energy.
The Sunday Herald understands that preliminary studies have also identified more than 27,000 rooftops in Glasgow as being potentially suitable for solar panels. They are said to be centred in Yoker, Crookston, Baillieston, Ruchazie and elsewhere.
Professor Joe Clarke, who leads Strathclyde University's input into the solar farm survey, applauded the move. “This is a means to foster a partnership approach to the development of low carbon energy supply solutions at the community scale,” he said.
The city’s initiative is branded as “exciting” by Professor Keith Barnham, a physicist at Imperial College in London and the author of a forthcoming book on solar power. It would help Scotland achieve its renewable objectives, he argued.
“I am backing Scotland to beat the Danes and the Germans to a cheaper, all-renewable, electricity supply by 2020 – leaving England well behind. PV on brownfield sites is a great idea, particularly if it benefits the neighbourhood through a local electricity grid.”
Barnham’s book, The Burning Answer, due to be published on 15 May, points out that Laplanders have managed to reduce their winter heating bills by using stored solar energy. The peak wholesale price of daytime electricity is falling in Germany thanks to the sun, it says.
The book warns that burning unsustainable fuels like oil and uranium risks global warming and nuclear disaster. But it contends that a “solar revolution” would enable society to meet its energy needs without triggering environmental catastrophe.
The Scottish renewables industry pointed out that solar arrays in Scotland could generate at least as much electricity as those in central or northern England. “Scotland may not be famous for its clear skies, but technological advances and the falling price of solar mean we are now able to grasp the opportunities the sector presents,” said Stephanie Clark, policy manager for the industry association, Scottish Renewables.
She pointed out that 22 per cent more solar power was installed in Scotland in 2013 than in the previous 12 months. “We will work with industry and government to ensure that solar continues to shine in Scotland,” she said.
According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change in London, 16 major solar electricity projects have won planning approval in Scotland since 2011, with a combined capacity of over five megawatts. They include six secondary schools in Aberdeenshire, four farms, an energy park in Dunbar, a college in Midlothian, a caravan park in Inverness and three projects on small islands.
The City of Edinburgh Council was reported in December to be investigating nine possible sites for solar farms. They included the former tip at Blinkbonny, Torphin Quarry, Blackford Quarry and the Gilmerton Bing.
“Solar is a terrific way to bring brownfield sites back to life,” said Paul Barwell, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association. “Solar farms are low lying and quiet, so if they are well screened then you wouldn’t know they were there.”
If well designed, they could also serve as havens for wildlife, including bees, bats, birds and beetles, he claimed. “The costs of solar have plummeted in recent years, making it a sound proposition for investors of all types and scales the length and breadth of the UK.”
According to Grant Withers, director of business development at Scottish solar company, Forster Energy, it was a “misconception” that Scottish weather didn’t suit solar power. “Our irradiation levels are typically between 85 and 90 per cent of those in northern Germany or the south of England,” he said.
“Germany leads the way in solar power, showing that you don't need to be in areas of high levels of sunshine to make PV a viable alternative for energy production. In July 2013, it set a new world record, producing 5.1 terawatt-hours.”
Major solar electric projects with planning approval in Scotland
Hatston Farm, Orkney
Bunchrew Caravan Park, Inverness
Cairnhill Farm, Turriff, Aberdeenshire
Peterhead Academy, Aberdeenshire
Inverurie Academy, Aberdeenshire
Guise Farm, Alford, Aberdeenshire
Westhill Academy, Aberdeeshire
Aboyne Academy, Aberdeenshire
Banchory Academy, Aberdeenshire
Mackie Academy, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire
Tigh An Eas, Isle of Skye
Rock Cottage, Isle of Rum
Isle of Eigg
Pitlivie Farm, Carnoustie, Angus
Dunbar Energy Park, East Lothian
Jewel and Esk College, Dalkeith, Midlothian
Installed solar electric projects in Scotland
Sector / number of installations / capacity in megawatts
Domestic / 30,789 / 106
Commercial / 508 / 7.8
Industrial / 29 / 0.8
Community / 63 / 1.2
Total / 31,389 / 115.8