Northern Ireland

Solar farm company plans 20 Northern Ireland sites

Proposed solar farm site
Image caption One of the proposed sites is at Aldergrove in County Antrim

The UK's biggest developer of solar farms has said it wants to spend £100m developing 20 sites in Northern Ireland over the next two years.

Lightsource Renewable Energy Ltd is currently consulting on plans for two large scale farms in County Antrim and one in County Down.

One of the sites is 35 acres of land at Aldergrove near Belfast International Airport.

The company has said it could generate enough power for more than 1,000 homes.

The two other sites currently under consideration are at Upper Ballinderry, near Lisburn, and Ballyhornan near Downpatrick.

The London-based company has developed about 75 solar farms to date.

Its development director Conor McGuigan is from Belfast.

He said there was a lot of potential for utility-scale solar farms in Northern Ireland.

"If it works domestically, then you can generally make it work commercially," he said.

"What we have found here (in Northern Ireland) is that it is akin to somewhere like the Midlands and we have been deploying farms there for the last year and a half."

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Media captionConor McGuigan said solar power was a safe option for investors

Once a suitable site is acquired, rows of solar panels are erected on staging.

The company says no concrete foundations are required and the whole installation can be removed at a future date. Lightsource Renewable Energy commits to the site for 25 years.

David McClenaghan lives across the road from the proposed Aldergrove site and has concerns about a solar farm arriving on his doorstep.

"Car parking facilities are slowly spreading away from the airport, businesses are coming in, hauliers are obviously needed for the airport and I don't particularly want to be living in the middle of an industrial area and to me this could start that off," he said.

The company is backed by private investors who will get a return from green government subsidies which are guaranteed for 20 years.

Conor McGuigan said solar power is a safe option for investors.

"We work within a fund called Octopus Investments - they stand behind us - these are not fat cats, they are small investors," Mr McGuigan said.

"So what we do is deploy that money in a safe, predictable and very conservative way. Solar is very predictable, it's not sexy in terms of returns, but that works."

In England there has been a solar rush - counties like Dorset, Devon and Cornwall have seen a rise in applications for ever bigger installations.

Image caption David McClenaghan has concerns about the Aldergrove plan

Some environmental campaigners there are concerned about turning agricultural land over to generating power.

It is a concern shared by David McClenaghan.

"There's other land, old airfields etc near at hand, that could be used for this sort of development but to use good green ground, to me just wouldn't be right," he said.

Lightsource Renewable Energy said that the land can continue to be used for grazing and in areas where the solar farms are given over to nature they have greatly enhanced biodiversity.

The company also said that meeting UK government targets of 22GW of electricity from solar over the next 15 years would only require use of about 0.3% of all agricultural land.

The Northern Ireland Executive wants 40% of NI energy to come from alternative sources by 2020.

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