The government is totally committed to expansion of the UK solar power industry – but warns that “inappropriate” expansion will lose public support.

That was the key message from the Minister of State for energy and climate change, Greg Barker, when he addressed Britain’s first Large Scale Solar conference yesterday (Thursday).

Mr Barker revealed that government research had found public support for the principle of solar energy running at 82% - “as a politician, I would be very happy with that sort of number,” he said.  But he warned that large scale solar farms were now starting to encounter similar difficulties to those faced by wind farm developers, and said the industry needed to address public concerns.

Speaking to more than 120 industry representatives at a conference in Cornwall, Mr Barker said he was confident the UK would reach its target of at least 20GW of installed solar power generation by 2020.  The installation of domestic photo-voltaic systems had already passed 420,000 – “far more than we ever thought possible when we introduced the Feed In Tariff (FIT) a few years ago.”

The FIT for solar farms and domestic systems guarantees a generous, fixed price for electricity – encouraging landowners and developers to invest in the technology.

But on his way in to the conference, at County Hall, Truro, Mr Barker had to run the gauntlet of anti-solar farm demonstrators protesting against plans for a large-scale system near their homes.  “I have never seen an anti-solar farm demonstration before,” said Mr Barker.  “We don’t want solar to become like wind, in terms of controversy.  It is absolutely vital that we keep the public on our side.  I make no apologies for saying that.  I know it’s not the message you want to hear – but we cannot ride roughshod over local communities.”

Several delegates shook their heads in obvious disagreement when Mr Barker said the government had earlier “over-incentivised” large scale projects, possibly at the expense of small-scale domestic installations.

Jonathan Scurlock of the National Farmers Union said large scale systems posed no threat to food security and that land was not in short supply, but Mr Barker warned that in some parts of the country, tourism interests had fears over landscape considerations and these fears had to addressed.  He promised that his department would soon publish a strategy for the solar industry that would “take it to the next level.”

He said the UK photo-voltaic industry was in good shape and he hoped to lead a trade delegation to Saudi Arabia.

The conference also heard from Angus MacDonald, a Somerset farmer who now runs British Solar Renewables, who said he had often been asked if sheep could continue to graze fields once they had PV panels installed.  “Sheep are most definitely viable,” he said, showing slides of his own animals grazing around the panels on his land.

Phil Mason, Cornwall Council’s head of planning, said it was important for large scale developers to offer some form of community benefit to help minimise objections.  He also advised that planners would increasingly prefer to see large scale projects on “brown field” sites which had already been industrialised.

Cornwall was chosen to host the conference because it has already seen the development of several large scale solar farms, enough to generate 3% of the county’s demand for electricity.