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Green light for huge solar farm near Lough Neagh which will power 9,500 homes - not to mention double as sheep shelter

By Linda Stewart

Published 24/03/2016

A solar farm not too dissimilar to the one which has just been approved for Antrim
A solar farm not too dissimilar to the one which has just been approved for Antrim

Northern Ireland's biggest solar farm is in the pipeline after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan granted planning permission.

The 47 megawatt installation would generate enough electricity to power almost every home in Antrim town.

The 200-acre solar farm would be built on agricultural land south of Antrim town close to Lough Neagh and would hold 179,000 static solar panel modules mounted on frames, along with associated development such as invertor stations, a control building, access and security fencing.

It would also provide shelter from the elements for sheep that will also be living on what is a windy site, according to the planning consultant behind the scheme, Leslie Ross.

"The farmer who owns the land grazes sheep and he intends to continue doing that. The panels will provide a bit of shelter for them on that particular site," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"This solar farm is 200 acres, which is a big site, even in UK terms, never mind NI terms. It's almost 50 megawatts and over a year it will be producing power equivalent to the needs of 9,500 homes.

"That's 18,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission, which basically means less coal and oil has to be burned."

He insists that a solar farm in rainy Northern Ireland does stack up, explaining: "We went to (the Department of the Environment) about three years ago and said to them we think that large scale solar is viable in Northern Ireland and they said, 'You are not serious', but because the technology has moved on quite a lot since the early days with production of the panels, it's viable.

"It doesn't need sunlight, it just needs daylight. It stacks up. It needs a bit of a subsidy and the subsidy is being closed at the end of March next year. It's a small subsidy but it's enough to make this viable."

That means the scheme needs to be up and running by this time next year - and that might be a problem. "What might hold it up is the NIE connection. We need to get a line from here to the substation and it's not confirmed yet that they are going to build that line," Mr Ross said.

"We're happy to pay the money - it's just whether NIE can do it. It only takes about five months from start to finish to build. It's a quick process but we need to have the grid connection first and it's an underground one."

Mr Durkan said: "With the potential to generate the equivalent annual energy needs for over 9,500 homes, this scheme is the largest solar farm granted permission to date in Northern Ireland and will make a significant contribution to the wider Government objectives of electricity production from renewable sources. I have given careful consideration to the impacts of the proposal on environmental interests."

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