It’s all part of Ibstock’s broader ‘sustainability roadmap’, says Ibstock’s land resources manager, Tony Fullagar. “Essentially, we decided a few years ago to stop talking and start doing something about our carbon footprint as we expand. We don’t want to put in factories that our children will later regret.”
Financed, built and operated by Lightsource bp (LSbp), the solar farm is ‘hard-wired’ into Ibstock’s private electricity network. With four manufacturing facilities at Ibstock – three brick and one concrete factory – the solar farm will supply up to 30% of the site’s electrical power needs at a fixed price through a 25-year power purchase agreement (see below for details). Any surplus energy is sold into the grid.
Building a solar farm at a brick factory is no mean feat, given the kilns must typically be run 24 hours a day to avoid damage. “When construction took place, we were in the middle of a housing boom, which meant huge demand for our bricks,” says Tony. “We couldn’t afford to stop the factory, even for two minutes.”
This posed something of a challenge for construction director Apostolos Kotsaris: “Because this is a direct connection into the factory, we had to manage that process in phases to avoid disrupting Ibstock’s core activities.”
Tony Fullagar, land resources manager, Ibstock Brick
What’s more, the land that the solar farm is located on will, one day, be used to quarry further clay. “Our team had to carefully plan the farm’s layout and use of materials, avoiding carbonates and adjusting the design in order to maintain the conditions,” Apostolos explains.
With construction taking place during a UK winter, conditions were unsurprisingly muddy. Nevertheless, the team completed 13,000 manhours of construction without a safety incident. Now, LSbp is developing a long-term site management plan, including specific biodiversity activities and grazing.
This is a key part of LSbp’s work, since research shows that solar farms can help to boost local biodiversity and are particularly good for pollinators, which is why, explains Zosia Reisner, LSbp’s director of power markets for Europe, “We have a dedicated beekeeper who helps manage hives at some of our sites.”
Ibstock is the country’s largest manufacturer of clay and concrete building products. With 41 manufacturing sites across the UK, it has 220 million tonnes of clay reserves and resources and employs 2,300 people.
While Ibstock may not be the largest project in the LSbp portfolio, it is a perfect demonstration of its strategy to become a leading global solar developer, working in partnership with other businesses to help them access more sustainable sources of power.
It was that sense of partnership, says Tony, that convinced Ibstock to work with LSbp. “There was a real willingness to work together with us on this. We want to be at the forefront of sustainability, to show that traditional industrial businesses can reduce their impact. LSbp is helping us do that.”
While the two firms are now discussing new projects, other industrial businesses are keen to talk, including a cheese factory in southwest England. “What we’ve done with Ibstock is tangible,” says Zosia. “Other businesses can see that it saves money and reduces Ibstock’s carbon footprint. We’ve been delivering these kinds of projects for a few years now, but what’s really exciting is we can fulfil the needs of many different types of business and they want to talk to us.”
LSbp technical director Chris Buckland likens the solar industry to the early days of mobile phones, such is the pace of technological development.
To keep up, LSbp works about three years ahead, scanning for the next big breakthrough. When it spots an interesting opportunity, the company incorporates it within an existing site. “We always do it this way.” says Chris, “We run the new technology in the field for at least a year in order to get viable results. That’s how we innovate.”
That’s exactly what happened back in 2017, when LSbp heard about a new type of solar panel, capable of harvesting light on both sides, known as bifacial panels.
Traditional panels are equipped with high-transmission glass, a series of silicon solar cells and a white backing to reflect any light that makes it past the cells. Bifacials work in exactly the same way, only the reflective sheet is replaced with glass, leaving the rear side open to capture any sunlight that hits the back directly.
“We first installed some research panels at one of our sites in Northern Ireland,” Chris explains. “We did a lot of experimental work with them and discovered that by raising them higher off the ground and tilting them at 25 degrees, rather than the standard 20 degrees, we could harvest more sunlight via the back.”
Indeed, the efficiency of energy transfer in a bifacial can be increased by as much as 14%, meaning more energy from the same amount of space.
Ibstock’s solar farm was the first full LSbp site to be fitted with the bifacials and the team is so pleased with their performance that they are now using them as standard in many of its projects.
“Solar panels become less efficient if they get too hot, which isn’t ideal for countries nearer the equator,” says Chris. “What that means is that a UK site fitted with bifacials will outperform a site in Spain by about 5%.”
The panels also have had an unexpected benefit in US states that experience heavy snowfall. The glass in solar panels is a poor insulator, so the additional heat melts the snow, allowing winter sunlight through. This is in addition to capturing energy from the underside of the panel from light reflected off the snowfall on the ground. “Normally, we’d budget for zero generation between about November and February,” says Chris, “but, with bifacials, we can harvest around 10% more sunlight.”
LSbp works with Ibstock to agree the terms of a power purchase agreement (PPA) alongside obtaining approvals and designing the solar farm.
LSbp secures finance against its PPA revenues in order to fund construction. As such, the project required no investment from Ibstock.
LSbp selects a construction partner and procures materials. All overseen by an LSbp project manager.
LSbp operates and manages the site for the period of the PPA. In this case, 25 years. This includes technical and performance management, contract and financial management and regulatory affairs.
At its heart, says Zosia, a PPA is a guarantee that a business will buy power from LSbp for a fixed period of time. They are multi-decade, complex documents covering everything from price, renewable purchase guarantees and agreement on how the two sides will work together over the life of the contract.
Understandably, negotiations take time. “It’s a huge decision for a business,” Zosia explains. “And the commercials behind them are quite complicated. In Ibstock’s case, we started talking to them in about 2016 and the PPA was signed in 2018.”
Taking that time is essential, though, if solar projects like Ibstock are to get off the ground. Once the PPA is signed, LSbp can raise the finance needed to build the farm and planning can begin in earnest. “Ibstock could have built their own solar farm, but this way there’s no capital expenditure so they pay as they consume over the lifetime of the agreement,” says Zosia.
What’s more, LSbp absorbs a lot of risk and can take advantage of economies of scale. “It’s a brilliant way for us to secure funding in the knowledge that the farm will have a buyer for the power for its duration,” says Zosia.