Could Redhill talk climate talk with a gas to solar tale?

Former gasholder site Earlswood is ripe for solar conversion

Take a peek over a wall in a forgotten, derelict corner of Earlswood and you’ll see a muddy plot of land, acting as a flood plain at present, it seems. But could it be ripe for converting to a renewable energy project?

There is no sign that this abandoned pocket of this Redhill suburb was once home to a towering, cylindrical gasholder structure.

Warnings about the plot being monitored by CCTV adorn one end of this land. Nestling near a popular convenience store and surrounded by houses on pretty much all sides, its fate seems inevitable.

Housing. Yet more dwellings to add to the population, traffic to add to the busy Hooley Lane which, at the best of times, is reduced to single lane traffic because cars park on one side. Better that this site – a former industrial area – was used for more homes than, say, further large open space or greenbelt land, yes?

Sleepwalk or see the sunny side?

There would need to be a survey to see if the site needed decontaminating. But replacing such structures – which site owners SGN were given permission to remove in January 2018 – wouldn’t be that hard, surely? Tandridge accepted a plan for 77 homes on a former gasholder site in Oxted at about the same time.

We could sleepwalk into that housing scenario, or is there hope of another, brighter, future for this three-acre space? One that could benefit the community as a whole – even if it was just to cherish – but still be industrial?

Those gas holders had long been redundant. The energy mix in our national grid has moved on, too. Society is awakening to another industrial future – renewable energy. Renewables accounted for 40% of energy supplies between January 2020 and September of the same year, say Government figures.

So why not install solar panels on this land and sell the energy that is created either to local residents or the grid? If this gas to solar story sounds fanciful, it doesn’t need to, because of a Surrey-wide fund.

Your Fund Surrey, a pot of £100 million ringfenced for community projects by the county council, offers just such an opportunity.

Think Big! Think climate

The slogan for Your Fund Surrey is THINK BIG! Ideas can be logged on the Your Fund Surrey map, with the money available over a period of five years. This means not all projects have to be instantly set up. You’d have time to formulate a plan fully. Eventually, though, you’d need an organisation to take on the idea because grants will not be made to individuals.

So how about solar panels then? They would be less visible than the towering gasholders. Less intrusive, too (in many ways) than the affects of having yet more housing. And they would also be a nod towards our fossil free future targets – whether 2030 or 2050 – plus in line with the county council’s declaration of a Climate Emergency.

A talking point at least, for children brought to school by their parents along surrounding roads. A marker to their future. An educational tool for young pupils at two primary schools locally. Unlike the fears around phone masts, solar panels create no emissions that are harmful to humans. And if they do pose problems for habitat – as some claim – there should be few concerns at a former industrial site.

A County Council marker

These worries would be bigger if a solar farm was set up in a clear green field. Which might be why Surrey County Council, in planning its own solar farm, is doing so on a landfill site. That is, on previously used land where wildlife harm is most likely minimal.

In any case, one farmer in West Sussex stresses that there seem to be many benefits TO wildlife from solar panels on his land, such as increased wildflowers and protection to birds. Currently its location is unknown but the fact that SCC has such a thing in mind was revealed by the local media Surrey Live last April. Surely, then, it would be supportive of similar solar projects?

The energy generated from SCC’s planned site would, the council said, would generate five megawatts of energy for its own buildings. That neatly solves the question of who would be their buyer.

A community project might not be so lucky as to find an immediate buyer for what is produced. Although feeding into the grid seems an obvious possibility. Maybe, if not immediately, in time local residents might be targeted to buy energy from this source.

Something to think about

Tantalisingly, a reminder marketing email from commonplace urging people to keep looking at proposals marks out environmentalism. “Ideas so far range from community workshops and gardens to a new eco hub with heat pumps, rain harvesting and solar panels showing a variety of community resources for all areas of the community. But remember THINK BIG.”

Before you scream, “but we don’t have enough sun…” solar – photovoltaic – panels just require some daylight, not just the hot sun of summer, to produce energy. According to The Switch, solar generates 4% of energy in Britain. It is the third most generated renewable power, behind wind, for which the Government has big plans, and biomass. Solar farms – sometimes described as solar parks – are said by The Switch to be viable if they are between one acre and 100 acres.

There are 426 solar farms in the UK. The largest is in north Wales, which doesn’t seem the warmest corner of the United Kingdom. Las May, 11% of the national grid’s energy came from solar, say BEIS figures.

Just how much such a scheme would cost – Your Fund Surrey asks for a non-binding estimate – or how much power could be generated are questions to think about. If 5MW is viable from a former SCC landfill site, what could be generated from three acres in Earlswood? How might shadows from neighbouring buildings affect the output?

The costs of solar panels are coming down, according to the National Farmers Union. Several farmers have apparently diversified from seeds to solar. Or combined both, to make a living. So why should communities not give them a go – or benefit from them, too?

Ground-mounted solar energy sources accounted for much of the solar-capacity increase in 2020, reports The article further reports that Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department data shows a 27% increase in solar projects coming on line in 2020 compared to 2019. No wonder Surrey County Council sees an opportunity to get in on this this cheapest way of generating energy.

However, that is for utility-sized plots. Realistically, the Earlswood site might not be big enough for a ground-based scheme. But who knows? If a community building – or housing association flats – were put up there, maybe the roof space would be enough to justify using the roof space for a community solar project?