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

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.

Solar Farm: 3rd site visit during construction

In case you didn’t know. I run a small energy company and am building a small solar farm with the money I made from selling video games. Here is the company website:

We made another trip to the site yesterday. Its a 350 mile round trip, and part of it was in the rain. This was the first time we visited in bad weather, but to be honest it wasn’t TOO bad. The site is basically the crest of a hill, so drainage is excellent, and it wasn’t too muddy. Despite, this they were still transporting solar panels on pallets using tracked vehicles, because…mud is still a thing.

I bought these solar panels about 8 months ago, in a fit of enthusiasm to push the project forwards. This turned out to be madness, as I then had to store 3,000 of them in a warehouse at huge expense. The panel prices did then rise…but then fell. I think overall, it was a bad decision, but not catastrophic. Despite owning solar panels all this time, I had never seen them until today. Also, 60 tons of solar panels sounds a lot, but does it look a lot in person…?

The answer is YES. It does. Its a lot of boxes, and thats not all of them, a lot of them were already fitted to the frames. Its multiple big articulated lorries full of them. On the plus side, I am no longer getting monthly storage bills. On the negative side, I had to pay £700 to the warehouse to load them on to the truck. This sounded a lot, but it is a lot of panels so… I guess its understandable.

The real excitement for this trip was to see panels actually on frames, to get an idea of what the finished project will look like. Our first impressions were that they were being fitted pretty quickly, and that the frames are really high. No danger of long grass obscuring the bottom of a panel! (A disaster when that happens, as it effectively shadows the whole panel, and indeed the whole string).

I posted that picture to give some idea of scale. Thats not a complete row of panels, we currently have a ‘gap’ awaiting the moving of the HV cable. once that is moved we can fill it in and have longer rows. You can just about see that a few rows are now double paneled, and some they have just done the bottom row. The bottom row is first, then they go back with a sort of frame to stand on so they can access the top row and fit those. There was a team of 4 people working together to mark out the location, attach the fixtures, and then place the panels on the rails. While they do this, fresh panels are delivered to points along each row on pallets ready to be fitted.

At this point, the panels are attached, but there is no wiring. A separate team of people (electricians this time) are connecting the panels together to form strings which eventually get wired to the inverters at the end of some rows.

Thats one of the inverters already mounted. Its a 100kw inverter, so about 25x the power of the kind you have if you get panels on your house. The box to the right is the emergency cut out switch. All that metal stuff underneath is just a bracket to attach a LOT of DC cabling to the inverter, which will run at head height along the length of the panels. In cases where the inverter is connected to panels on another row, there is underground armored cable & ducting to bring all the DC cabling together. Further underground ducts will connect each inverter to the substation using AC cable, but that work has not started yet. The substation design is holding everything up!

A picture to show the scale of each solar table next to a mere human. As someone with a small ground-mount array of 10 panels in his garden, its surprising how high up these are, and how tall they are at the top of the final panel. They are fitted in 2 rows height, in portrait mode (some farms are landscape), and each panel is ‘split’ into two, hence the white line in the middle. They are effectively 2 panels each, and have 2 connectors on the back of each one. Each panel outputs 410 watts

and lastly…

When people repeat stupid oil-company propaganda nonsense about losing farming land to solar panels, I’ll be tempted to reply with this. The grass is still very appealing to the sheep, and plenty of room between and under the panels for them to graze. Frankly on a day like yesterday the sheep probably thought the shelter was awesome. Technically the sheep are supposed to be out of the way during construction, mostly for their safety, but they got in somehow, and it turns out getting them out again isn’t easy. They seem to co-exist with the construction site pretty happily :D.

There will likely be a delay of a few weeks before I go back, unless something exciting happens. There are a lot of panels to attach, and then a LOT of wiring to be done, which is still a manual procedure. There is no clever automation or robotics that can do this yet. Actual humans have to walk to each panel, grab a cable, plug it in, then probably cable tie the cabling nicely out of the way, so it stays there in thunderstorms for 25 years. Maybe one day Teslabots will do this, but not this year.

The real hold up on this project has been the grid connection. First it was planning, then grid connection. I could write a whole epic space opera about how much grief it has been. I HOPE that we are now zeroing in on final agreement as to how everything will work, and thus we can a) start building the earthing mesh and connections for the substation and b) get a date for the DNO to move that overhead cable so we can fill-in the final mounting frames and tables and have everything connected.

The project is still a cause of daily worry and stress, because it involves literally dozens of people talking to each other in email threads that are contradictory, out of synch and confusing. Hopefully things get much better soon.

Meanwhile, a reminder of how important it is that we do projects like this.

Solar farm: 2nd site visit (July 2023)

A week after the first visit to the solar farm, we decided to head back. Its a LONG drive, but a lot had changed, and the next week looks like bad weather so I thought I’d grab the opportunity to take another look.

There is now a LOT of metal in the field! When you see a completed solar farm, it looks like just rows and rows of glass and plastic panels, but what is mostly hidden from you is the amount of metal support needed to keep it all in place. As I’ve mentioned before, you need to be sure that everything stays firmly in the ground for 25 years minimum, so there are no half measures.

With the frames in place now for most of one of the 3 zones, we get a true feel for how large each of the groups of panels (called ‘tables’) are. They are much bigger than the small array I have in my garden :D. I can just about touch the top of the main support posts if I’m on tip-toes.

Now that the frames are in, you get a much clearer picture of how undulating the land is. This looks like a few long rows of panels, but its actually not the full width. We wont be able to finish any of the rows of panels until the overhead high voltage cable has been buried, because you cant be piling tall metal posts in that close to an 11,000 volt cable. Hopefully we get an actual date for that very soon!

In a perfect world, the field for this farm would be completely flat, so the layout of the panels would be very uniform, with one inverter mounted at the end of each row, and each group of DC cables from the tables running along the top, at head height (so we don’t electrocute any sheep!) and they would plug right into the end-row inverters. Then a single trench would run along all the inverters taking their AC cables underground (armored, with sand laid on top, then topsoil, so totally buried and safe) to the substation.

Because this field is NOT flat, you need to wire the tables in groups that will get the same level of sunshine at all times. because of the hill, at sunset some panels in one region might be getting more sun than others. This means that each row is NOT a single inverter, but varied clumps of panels are wired to each inverter. That means SOME cabling in that gap between the rows you see above. That will be DC cabling, but will also need to be buried safely underground. Its an annoying extra complication.

I was very pleased with the progress in the 7 days between site visits. I’m still very nervous about the timing of getting the substation built. We cannot do this until the earthing is buried, and we cannot bury earthing until the design is complete. We HAVE now paid the connection cost to the grid in full (ouch), but still have neither confirmation that its received, or a set date for the earthing. I’ll have to try chasing that up soon, which I hate doing.

Solar farm building is 45% planning permission, 45% chasing people to do stuff, and 10% paperwork and spreadsheets. It’s a horribly stressful business, and its unusual for it to fall ultimately on an individual who owns a company. I suspect most people making the financial decisions for solar farms are accountants at big multinationals, for whom its not *their money*. I do not recommend this path as easy money or a quiet life!

In 4 days time panels will start to arrive and get fitted, which will make the site look much more finished and like a real solar farm. We already have the inverters (now back to Solis instead of Huawei. Don’t ask) ready to fit. BTW the inverters are BIG. I had in my mind that they MUST be big, but when you see pictures they look like domestic ones, but no. Each pair is on a pallet and the size of a chest freezer.

I’ll probably not be at the site next week, but will go back again after that to view the panels and inverters for myself. I like visiting the site and would go there twice a week if it was local, but 8 hours of driving in a day is a bit much, even if I can do about 80% of that on autopilot in my car. How anybody drives a manual car with gears and without cruise control or autopilot for that long each day is beyond me! (I used to do that in the past, but in my twenties).

BTW, just in case you think I am nuts for doing this, and that I should just relax instead, here is a reminder why I am doing it.