Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Solar farm update. Fencing. Trenching. Lawyers…

Amazingly this is the first update of the year, and its May. This is absolutely ridiculous beyond words, but I might start getting really ranty and angry if I get drawn into it, but suffice to say that for absolutely zero justifiable reason, nothing dramatic has really happened on the site for months.

Its all due to paperwork. basically the energy company (the people connecting the farm to the grid, at vast expense, all billed 100% to me) decided that they needed a sub-lease from me to put their substation on the freeholder (farmer’s) land. This is fine. I have a lease agreed over a year ago now with the farmer. They want their substation on my leased plot. Fine. Go for it. They tell me that they will write the lease, and they have proposed a signing agreement of £1.

Yes £1.

But ok, whatever, I have basically no say in this. They write the lease, I read it, and agree and sign it within 24 hours. Then we move on. Meanwhile, unconnected to this, I get a nice diagram showing how the farm is wired:

And then…apparently the energy company are not convinced I have the right to sign a sub lease. they demand to see my lease with the freeholder. I say fine, I send it. They then claim there is no evidence the lease is valid because we didn’t register the lease with the land registry. That means I have to hire a lawyer (for the first time in my life, after 27 years of running a video games company that trades globally), to fill out some paperwork with the land registry. I do this, and it takes weeks, because the lawyers don’t believe who I am and demand identity documents ad-nauseum, despite it being a matter of legal public record that I am the director of the company.

Oh well…

Anyway, I do all of this, and they then say that they don’t believe the freeholder is who he says he is either. AFAIK this freeholder has owned the land for decades (probably generations), and lets remember at this point that there is NO DISPUTE about the terms of either lease between any party. They insist on me printing an A3 copy of a map, in color, with my signature on, and physically mailing it to them. I have to find a print shop to do it. I do this. They then want the freeholder to travel physically to a lawyer to prove his identity. There are then other complications which I won’t detail, but at every possible turn, I am delayed, ignored, then handed yet more impossible and ridiculous demands.

They charge me about £5k in “extra legal costs” associated with the pain of me not personally having recruited another lawyer. This is ridiculous, and you can only begin to imagine my rage. I make multiple angry phone calls and send a battery of very angry emails. Meanwhile, we are heading towards summer, but nobody cares, not the energy company, and certainly none of the many lawyers involved.

Unrelated, We put a fence up around the site:

I phone the energy company lawyer to complain, when I’m told some bureaucrats need to physically sign pieces of physical paper that needs to be sent by courier, which might take another week. I insist that if its not done immediately I will physically get in my car, and make a 4 hour drive to their office, pick up the paper myself and fucking drive it to the home of the person who needs to sign it, and sit on their doorstep until they do.

I think they are finally understanding what I think of this process. Of course meanwhile, we hurtled through the 1.5 degrees barrier which was the tipping point for global catastrophic climate change, and UK farmers start to warn people they cannot grow food now. Nobody seems to give a damn.

But woohoo, we have dug some trenches and put some ducting in, ready for the AC cabling that goes from the inverters to the site substation, which is MY substation, where all of the AC stuff gets wired together ready to be handed over to the DNO, who then use a transformer and step up the voltage. Here are the very rare pics of actual progress:

So yeah, there have been no updates because of all this. Words cannot express my anger, despair and frustration at this. Its absolutely insane. Do not ever, ever EVER complain to me that your energy bill is too high!

I am hoping to eventually get a DATE for when the overhead line is moved, for which I will travel to the site to witness, seeing as though it cost more than my first house. I will exhaustively take photos of this event that I have been trying to arrange for almost 3 years.

Solar farm 4th site visit: Substations!

Its been a long time since my last visit to the site, and work stalled for ages due to arguments and analysis regarding earthing. Finally at LONG LAST, that was agreed upon, and we could recommence work. I went up there with a friend yesterday in pretty bad wet weather to see what progress there had been. Hopefully this is the start of the final leg of getting the farm finished and connected. When I was last there, most (85%?) of the panels and frames were installed, and most of the inverters, but that was it. This time there was some more stuff done.

The most obvious progress on that day was that the DNO (distribution network operator) people were actually on site installing their substation which includes a transformer. There will eventually be two substations, one for the DNO and one for the site, which will contain the meter and ‘switchgear’. The substation is kind of built on site, out of 4 wall panels and a roof. Here are some cool pics:

Thats the roof being lowered onto the DNO substation, which contains their transformer and other stuff,

A shot taken from my drone (in high winds!) showing the location of stuff. The hole at the bottom of the image, filled with stones is the base for the site substation, which will be built any day now, with our switchgear, and eventually meter. This is where all the underground AC cables from each inverter will meet.

Another drone shot of some of the panels. It was windy and I wasn’t able to get a nice clear image of all of them. The gaps between them in the middle here are where the overhead high voltage cable goes. Once that cable comes down, those gaps will be filled with more panels so there will be nice long uninterrupted lines. Those dotted white lines are actually deposits of snow that have slid off the panels a few days earlier.

We also have a lot of ditches. There are ditches that have been dug for a new underground high voltage line (we queried why this had to be underground, as it costs us WAY more, but were basically just told we had no choice… grrr.), and there are lots of ditches (a ridiculous amount it seemed to me…) for the earthing for the site. The earthing as been a huge, monumental pain in the ass.

So in a sense, this looks like good news right? Not really. There are two huge problems still standing between me and this ever getting finished. The first one is an eight week delay that is being insisted upon before the power can be BRIEFLY cut off to 4 houses so we can remove the overhead line. This is beyond insane, and there is ZERO (I checked) legislative need for this, but as with anything relating to a DNO, you have zero choice. (private monopolies suck). That 8 week delay has not even started yet, because it is, itself being delayed because of lawyers. Yes. Lawyers. FFS.

But the SECOND big problem and nightmare is importing energy. We need (In theory) energy supplied TO the site in order to power the CCTV at night, and I suspect to also actually run the meter itself. This sounds trivial but ALL of the big six energy companies I talked to were incompetent, clueless buffoons who couldn’t even understand what I was asking for. The few clued-up energy companies who did offer a quote to supply energy are quoting a standing charge of £55 a day. Yes thats pounds, not pence. The actual energy usage will be under £50p a day. Yes, I have checked. Yes, this is absolutely totally and utterly insane. There are other charges added too which mean the bill would be about £28,000 a year to run 4 CCTV cameras.

Now you might ask “how the fuck can the standing charge for a business at location X be over a hundred times more than the standing charge for a house at X?”. You might also ask why the fuck the DNO can not provide the power. You might also ask why the fucking fuck we cannot use the power we generated ON SITE and use a tiny backup battery to ‘buffer’ some of it. These are all valid questions, and its driving me insane. Let me explain a bit…

There are two types of electricity meter. A standard domestic one, and whats called half-hourly meters. These are for big businesses and stuff like my farm. They have a different system of standing charges, which are calculated on something called a line-loss factor (LLF). Basically companies stuff power into a line, and meter whats taken out, and note the difference. Remote locations will have high LLFs, as a significant amount of power is lost in transmission (also theft).

In a remote location, a high LLF will mean a high standing charge. Initially we were quoted £186 PER DAY. Now its down to £55 a day, because we had to remind them it was now LV not HV. No, they had not even made that change in their database. Anyway, this is irrelevant, because the whole idea of a LLF affecting a STANDING charge is nuts. I don’t care if 50% of the power on that line is wasted, thats fine, bill me PER UNIT OF POWER 50% higher, I understand. And also…I don’t care because I’ll be importing a trivial, trivial amount of power… but thats not how the UK energy pricing system works. Its for some boneheaded, stupid, illogical and insane reason being placed as a lump sum on the standing charge.

This is beyond stupid. If the LLF is 50% (stupidly high example), and I place an aluminum smelting plant in the Scottish highlands, then I will laugh at your £50/day charge as I demand 10MWH of power every day and you have to stick 20MWH on the line for me to get it. As a large, wasteful, remote high energy consumer, I laugh all the way to the bank. But a tiny, energy efficient company in exactly the same location will pay between 50 and 100x as much for their energy as they should. Absolutely bonkers, insane crazy nonsense. And nobody in the industry gives a damn, or shows any enthusiasm to change it.

Welcome to reason #349 why your UK energy bills are so high, but you can expect the daily mail to blame it on wind turbines or something…

Anyway… there is progress. Its super slow, and unbelievably frustrating and is driving me mad, but there is small progress. One day when all this is done I will celebrate by drinking so much alcohol and eating so many cakes I pass out.

Solar farm update: earthworks!

Its been a while since there has been any progress update on the farm. I could write at length about my frustration on this topic, but to sum up what I think about the general lack of urgency in the world to get stuff like this actually BUILT, I’ll just use one graph:


We are actually back working on physical stuff, rather than just people arguing over email, which is a change of pace. I am still waiting for the REGO application, which everyone in the industry I talk to says ‘is tedious and bureaucratic and torturously slow’. Amazingly, nobody has ever fixed this, and our government actively despises the environment, so it will likely not be fixed until after a general election (ha…not even then I bet). So no, I do not have ANY progress after MONTHS in trying to get a bureaucrat to say ‘yes, those are definitely solar panels’. Amazing.

The last few MONTHS have been basically a lot of back and forth arguing about earthing design. The site itself needs to be earthed, in case of lightning strikes (almost inevitable given 25+ years of 60 tons of solar panels on a hilltop), and the substation building also needs earthing. There are 2 substations, one owned by us, and one by the DNO (distribution network operator). They have totally separate earthing designs, and electrical experts fret a lot about if they could interfere. They also get very concerned about metal perimeter fencing, CCTV camera towers, and anything else metal in the vicinity.

After a LOT of email back and forth, which frankly drove me crazy, we seem to have finally agreed on everything. That means that we can build the base for the substations, which is the only bit of concrete involved on the farm (except maybe a tiny, tiny amount for CCTV tower bases). Because the substation base has to happen before we install switchgear, the substation itself, or move the overhead line which eventually allows the last few panels/frames…. its been holding up the entire project.

Here is a thrilling picture of a digger digging some substation foundations:

Here is an even more exciting picture of a trench being dug that will be needed for cabling to the substation.

There are also trenches needed for CCTV communication and power, and of course the trenches that link up the final cable runs from each of the inverters to the main switchgear stuff. Obviously its cheaper to get all your earthworks done in one go, and also we have the horrible English weather to battle against. Its been bad.

I have tried exceedingly hard to make this whole project run faster by doing things in parallel. I was hoping to get the PPA (power purchase agreement) sorted at the same time as the earthing, at the same time as the legal stuff, at the same time as the REGO stuff. It seems impossible to do this, unless I spent my whole life trying to hard to stay calm on the phone while literally begging people to get things done. Its infuriating to the extreme, especially given the hugely bureaucratic nature of all the involved businesses. Nobody at the DNO, or Ofgem, or any law company gives a damn if this project gets done on time, or at all. The potential for improving the whole process is epic, but it would require a change in culture.

I have high hopes that we may actually get the earthing done, the switchgear done, and the substation done in the next month. It looks like we wont be connected to the grid until next year. Don’t worry. Its not like we have a climate emergency, or sky high energy bills.

Solar farm mini-update: Waiting for rego

I haven’t mentioned my solar farm for a bit, because frankly nothing has happened. This is extremely frustrating, to put it mildly. Anyway, we have been beset by the evils of bureaucracy and delays again. The REGO stuff is taking ages, and we have been waiting on agreement on earthing…

Solar farms need earthing, in case of lightning strikes etc, and earthing 3,024 solar panels, inverters and a lot of metal framework is a big task. Because the soil at each site is different, the amount of earthing you need differs, and also the topography of each site differs, its not a standard thing that applies everywhere. We have CCTV masts, a surrounding fence (which will be mostly wooden posts IIRC, but definitely has metal components), a metal gate, a substation, and switchgear. The earthing for all of this has to be designed so its safe.

What causes mayhem is that the earthing has to be approved by the DNO (who will have their own substation), but they only design ‘their bit’ and then we have to use external consultants to design our bit, and then both sides have to agree that the other sides design doesn’t interfere with them, and then you can proceed. This involves at least 5 companies (mine, the HV consultant, the farm developer, the DNO and the earthing specialist), and everyone seems to take it in turns to have summer holidays, which has stretched things out enormously :(

The trouble is you cant do digging for foundations for the substation until you know what earthing grid you need. Without the earthworks you cant have the substation, without the substation you cant move the HV line. Without moving the HV line, we cant finish the panels…

So anyway, we finally have agreement (I think) on what the earthing design is, which means we can now start implementing it, which means we can do the substation foundations, and then the actual substation and switchgear install, and also then the meter install, the final panels & frames, and the moving of the HV line. We also need to do CCTV and perimeter fencing…and then its done!

At the same time (because I like to keep SOME progress happening) I have been trying to get certified for REGOs, to prove I am a renewable generator, and thus earn a higher rate for selling my power. This involves a hugely confusing process to fill out a form on a website from 1970, whereupon your application just sits in a pile and is totally ignored. Welcome to the UK government, and its 0.001% level of efficiency. Quite why there is a delay of more than 24 hours for a REGO application is beyond me, but I strongly suspect its something that I can do nothing about, that no politician will ever fix, and that just acts as yet another irritating drag on productivity because this is seemingly a country in terminal decline :(.

I have already chased my application by email twice, but obviously they get ignored too. I’m away for a week, and planning on starting with daily phone calls to chase it once I get back. I make no excuse for being annoying with stuff like this. If the system was well managed nobody would ever have to chase anything, but here we are…

Anyway, thats the update. No pictures to show, nothing to report except waiting, and waiting and waiting :(. The latest guess I have for energisation is early November, which frankly I would be content with.

Its gloriously sunny here today.

Fourth site visit to the solar farm

2 days ago we took our fourth trip up to the farm to take a look at the site. Its over 400 miles a day of driving to do the round trip, so not something done lightly. Luckily this time we had arranged to be there when it was super-sunny, which is always a nicer way to visit a solar farm. Sun might mean no mud, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is a farm full of grazing sheep. 2 days later and I still have not got all of the sheep crap off my boots. After a while you stop looking where you are treading…

Because we are in the phase of the site build where MOST of the panels are up, and they are being wired, there is not much change to see on a day-to-day process. Most people would struggle to notice if the panels in a farm were wired-in. The wiring is always looped around the metal frame, then bundled into metal channels and cable tied together, so its not like you should expect to see cable trailing on the ground. There is a kind of minimum height to aim for with most of the cabling, which is above the height a sheep can gnaw at.

Here is an image near the end of a row showing the bundled cabling that runs along connecting the panels, and how it goes into the big chunky inverter:

Normal inverters just have one ‘string’ of panels connected to them, but industrial ones have multiple strings. This allows the inverter to do clever voltage balancing so that each cluster of panels is operating as efficiently as possible given that some may be a bit more shaded than others at certain points in the day. When you have just 10 panels on your roof, it tends to be ‘cloudy’ or ‘sunny’ at any point in time, and the inverter will adjust accordingly, but when you have 4 acres of panels, the conditions are going to always vary across even just 300 panels (one inverter) so you need the inverter to be more adaptable.

Not all the panels are connected yet. I insisted on being ‘that guy’ who wanted to plug one in personally!

This was our first visit where we saw panels installed on the right hand side of the overhead line. This makes the farm feel much bigger, and it will feel bigger still once that overhead line is moved and the two sections of panels can be joined. Waiting for confirmation on the grid connection works date and the substation and earthing design has been the biggest headache for me in recent weeks. It does feel impossible to get progress to move at any faster rate. Basically electricity generation connection in the UK has been handed over to private monopolies with no demand that they proceed in a reasonable timeframe. You have no choice but to just accept their quotes and their timescales. Its a huge scandal that nothing is done about it, but then we have a government who actively despises renewable energy, so I doubt anything will change until a new government. Very depressing…

On a happier note, it always makes me feel good to get a sense of perspective in photos like this showing how much renewable energy my little company is building:

I also had some genuinely great news, by co-incidence while I was at the farm. I had got ‘indicative quotes’ from the company building the farm for how much I could get for the power, in what is called a ‘power purchase agreement’ (PPA). You sign these for 1, 2 or 3 years with a fixed price to take all the power you generate. Of course in real physical terms, your power will flow to the nearest demand, which will be local villages and a nearby town in Shropshire, but in market terms, someone will contract to pay me for my power, and that could be anyone.

The interesting thing is that there is a dual market here. There is a simple PPA, where someone wants electricity, and they will buy it anywhere. It could come from nuclear, coal, gas, oil, wind or even from France or Norway. There is a thriving free market for this stuff. Then there is the REGO market. REGO is “Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin”.

A REGO is a virtual certificate you get if you generate a megawatt-hour of renewable energy. It proves that the power came from a real renewable source. The REGO is basically traded on the free market, and keeps people honest. You cant sell the same REGO to 2 people, so it means if 10 companies each want 1,000 MWH, then they need to do deals with renewable generators who can provide that much power. If demand exceeds supply, the price of REGOs will go up, and vice versa.

For anybody super cynical, be aware, this system is real and works. If a company is bragging that they are 100% powered by renewable energy, they need to buy the REGOs to prove it, and only us renewable energy companies have them to sell. If you are getting your power 100% from a company that only supplies renewable generation, this is how that is enforced, and it really works.

In practice, at my scale, its not two separate things. You find a company who both needs power, and wants it to be renewable, and they give you a price for the bundle of the power + REGOs for everything you generate. In effect, this is a premium on top of the PPA I would get offered if I was a gas or coal-fired power station. Anyway… this is all a long technical explanation to say that I got 2 quotes from big (household name) energy companies and they were both WAY HIGHER than the other quotes I got. I am VERY nervous about the finances of this project, but if those prices stay in the same sort of level until I energize the plant (maybe October?) then, I will make a reasonable profit and it wont be a disaster :D.

My life will be far more chill when I finally get a date for the grid connection, or even just for the overhead line move… Fun fun fun.