In line with Warrington Borough Council’s plans to be carbon neutral by 2030, the authority have made significant headway through investment in renewable energy projects within and beyond the borough. Having developed and acquired two large solar farms near York and Hull, the Council now own renewable assets that generate more power than its uses. Using a commercial approach to green energy investments has proven viable in creating a regular income for essential council services and wider public benefit in Warrington via a community benefit fund.
Many councils are committed to act on climate change but also face financial pressures to deliver their core services. Plans for climate actions can often fall at the first financial hurdle. In 2019 Warrington Borough Council declared a climate emergency and committed to become carbon neutral within its own operations by 2030, while also encouraging wider action across the Borough.
Following the success of previous local renewable projects, including putting solar panels on homes and around a megawatt on a large commercial roof, the Council built an appetite for renewable investments. With limited immediate opportunities to develop a large solar farm within the Borough, Warrington looked for opportunities further afield, taking a commercial approach.
In partnership with GRIDSERVE the Council has now developed and acquired two solar farms at sites near York and Hull, with generation capacity of 34.7MWp and 25.7MWp respectively.
The solar farms are the first of their kind within the UK including some of the latest technical innovations, such as bi-facial panels with solar tracking and integrated battery storage with capacity of 27mWh installed at York, and 20mWh at Hull. These technologies help to maximise revenues enabling electricity to be sold at times of higher demand, not just during day light hours.
Each asset is held by a special purpose vehicle, a 100 per cent council owned company. To de-risk the investment, the solar assets were created and commissioned by GRIDSERVE prior to transfer of ownership to the council as a working asset. Warrington Borough Council has pioneered a commercially viable model, producing enough power for the Council’s own operations from the Hull site alone, while generation from York is sold to the energy market.
The assets generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 18,000 homes. The Hull farm alone has a generation capacity in excess of the Council’s own power use. Collectively, the farms will result in a carbon dioxide emission saving of 25,000 tonnes per year, helping to tackle the climate emergency and meeting climate ambitions. Revenue from the electricity generated creates a regular income for the Council, which will be re-invested in essential services and has been used to establish a community benefit fund to support green projects in Warrington.
The farms are already exceeding expectations for their performance and financial returns, showcasing the financial viability of renewable investments. On top of this, the sites locally have seen an increase in biodiversity since their commission. Following the placement of the solar panels, the degraded farm land underneath has been left to recolonise. Now the fields are full with meadow grasses and wildflowers, providing habitat for other species, and there are also bee hives onsite.
How is the new approach being sustained?
By taking a commercial approach the council has created assets that deliver a return on initial investments. Ongoing operation and maintenance is handled through the special purpose companies arrangements with GRIDSERVE.
The success of Warrington’s solar farms demonstrate the possibilities for local authorities to invest in large-scale renewable projects. The Council identified how to de-risk the investments and explore a commercial approach. They now are in the commissioning phase of a third farm that hopes to bring in further income for the Council.