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‘We need more local, homegrown projects” to avoid being reliant on ‘foreign energy’: Councillors discuss Cwmbran solar panel farm project being stopped

solar panels

A proposal to build a solar panel farm in Cwmbran has been stopped in its tracks four years after it was first presented to councillors.

Councillors attended their full council meeting this morning in the civic centre and were given a report by Rachel Jowitt, chief officer, neighbourhoods, planning & public protection. She said that “contract negotiations were halted” on the site in Ty Coch when the contractors suddenly proposed changes to how the farm would be built that were different to what was agreed in the original tender. 

Councillor Dave Thomas, Llantarnam Ward, said he and other members raised concerns about the business model being on “knife edge”  in 2018 and 2020 and was frustrated that “£259,956″ had been spent on the project with “nothing to show for it”.

‘The business case did stack up at the time’

Ms Jowitt said: “We are not the first council to take forward a solar farm on a landfill site. Our neighbouring authorities have managed to do it successfully. The business case did stack up at the time. Our preferred bidder, their tender was fully compliant with our requirements and showed the scheme to be viable. And that’s the report of June 2021. The preferred bidder then changed their method statement. Believe you me, I had no intention of bringing forward a scheme that I did not believe in or thought would not be viable or feasible for the council. 

We were trying to be innovative and bold. I’m deeply sorry that this is the report that has come forward today. It’s not what I want to have on my watch.”

She said the market had changed and solar panel providers, who are primarily based in China now want “big schemes, not small schemes”.

Contractor said ‘costs were significantly different’ now

Councillor David Daniels, Pontewydd Ward, said: “Is that ( the increase in construction costs and materials) a big driver behind this becoming unviable as a project?” Ms Jewitt said in some cases they were seeing project costs (on various council projects) going up by “50% / 60%/ 70%”.

She said the contractor hadn’t supplied revised costings in terms of construction because “they were more concerned about what they were proposing to do with the site in terms of compliance with ecology.” But the contractor told the council the “costs were significantly now different because of the construction sector.”

Cllr Daniels said that as far as he understood it, prior to the pandemic and the “fallout” that this project “was viable.” Ms Jewitt said that at that point the contractors’ “tender was fully compliant and viable”.

“‘I told you so’ politics is ‘disingenuous'”

Cllr Daniels said that he found it a “frustration” that at the point in time some councillors were saying the project was “unviable, it wasn’t” and at the point they were saying that, there “wasn’t the economic turmoil we are in at the moment.”

He said that at the same time councillors had also signed up to take “meaningful” action on climate change: “We can’t let this project stop us from doing further projects like this when it becomes viable because it’s essential towards us meeting our climate change targets.”

He said when this item came to Cabinet he raised the point of “energy security” and how “we need more local, homegrown projects” to avoid being reliant on “foreign energy” and “high carbon projects”.

He said: “It’s a frustration for me when members try and paint out that they predicted this when a lot of this is based on the fact we have had global turmoil as the result of a pandemic. I think it’s disingenuous to say ‘oh. I said this was on a knife edge a few years ago’ when none of us could have predicted this, and if the members who say this. say they can predict this, you could have blown this whistle slightly earlier. It’s a massive frustration for me, because it’s absolutely useless,  ‘I told you so,’ when we absolutely need projects like this to go forward and we cannot let it deter us from doing this in the future because if we are going to meet our energy security goals and climate crisis goals, this is what we are going to have to do

“I’m massively disappointed that it hasn’t been able to go forward but it can’t let us deter us from our climate change commitments and it should not make us scared to try these things again.”

Cllr Thomas responded: “I did say this in 2018, then again in 2020 so I said this quite early on in the stages so I don’t understand what the member (Cllr Daniels) was on about there. But in 2018 is when I said that this business model didn’t look like it was viable at all and this project will not be able to continue in the future because if it comes down to costs the longer we leave it the more those costs will go up so this project will never go ahead, as I said in 2018.

The project was a ‘valid risk’ to take

Cllr Anthony Hunt, Leader of Torfaen Council, said: ” We declared a climate emergency. We are not going to meet the requirements of the promise unless we take some risks.  I regret that this happened. I think the timeline is important. It’s not that the original case was not viable, it’s that changes were then made, subsequent to us agreeing it, that have made it not viable. The only logical choice is to put a stop to it now.

“New information, changes to the project came forward after the council made the decision so I  think it’s the logical step to take this step now. I am sorry that it has come about in this way.” Cllr Hunt said he felt the project was a “valid risk” to take at the time.

Cllr Thomas asked how the project had gone from (in a March 2021 report) bringing in an income of £63,000 a year (over 35-years) to making a loss?

Ms Jowitt said the contractor proposed to change their proposal to build the solar farm and that didn’t comply with planning or biodiversity. She added: “That led to a change in prices.”

The project aimed to produce three megawatts of energy every year- ‘the equivalent to 21.15% of annual CO2 generated by the Council (equivalent to 982 homes) as well as give a net positive financial return’.

The report says the contract was never signed as certain conditions were not met by the contractor. The four reasons given to explain the variations in the contractor’s new proposal were:

a) Did not comply with the approved planning application and biodiversity mitigation requirements;
b) Increased cost which whilst not exactly quantified due to the lack of information from the contractor was indicated to turn the project from a positive to a negative financial position;
c) Caused delays to the agreement with Western Power for grid connection; and
d) Made the project unviable to the Council from a delivery, financial and ecological perspective.

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Photo credit

Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/blue-solar-panel-board-356036/

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‘We need more local, homegrown projects” to avoid being reliant on ‘foreign energy’: Councillors discuss Cwmbran solar panel farm project being stopped