Light fantastic: BP’s solar venture launches biggest UK project yet

“He’s scaring me now,” laughs Mark Davis, as a menacing-looking ram takes a step towards him from underneath an angled solar panel. The burly operations manager is touring Manor Farm near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, where sheep are using the solar arrays for shade and a remote-controlled cleaning robot with the appearance of a mini tank steadily sloshes water down the panels.

A persistent hairdryer-like hum comes from the huge boxy green inverter, which converts the direct current electricity that the panels generate to the alternating current used by the electrical grid. This is one of about 270 solar farms that have been developed by Lightsource BP in the UK.

The company – a joint venture between its founder, Nick Boyle, and the oil supermajor BP – is, by some measures, the world’s largest solar developer. It is an industry in the spotlight amid a push for energy security, an increase in consumer demand and a row over the use of land. Against this backdrop, Lightsource BP is pursuing an aggressive global expansion plan – it will be present in 20 countries by the end of the year – and, the Guardian can reveal, has just pushed the button on its largest UK project to date.

Construction will begin at the vast Tiln Farm development in Nottinghamshire next month. When complete, it will have a maximum output of 61 megawatts of power. The development is part of plans to increase Lightsource’s near-6GW output to 25GW by 2025 – or enough to power 19m homes – revised up from an original target of 10GW by 2024. Its many projects include the sprawling Woolooga scheme in north-east Australia and Europe’s largest floating solar farm on the Queen Elizabeth II reservoir south-west of London. In the long term, it has 55GW in its project pipeline. The firm also plans to expand its battery storage operations rapidly, typically sited alongside solar farms.

It is an ambitious vision devised by Boyle, who cut his teeth in financial services before founding Lightsource in 2010. Since then, the venture has grown from a tiny operation with six staff to a 900-strong workforce. At Manor Farm, a large group in orange hi-vis jackets studiously examine the site. Every six weeks, a trip is bussed in as the hundreds of new employees hired during the pandemic get a first-hand look at its operations.

“The big advantage with solar is its simplicity,” Boyle says, speaking on a videocall from the company’s London headquarters. “The sun comes up and then it’s simply a chemical reaction.” Boyle argues that soaring energy prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have underlined the case for the technology. “The price [to generate] solar is exactly the same today, and will be the same tomorrow because we have no feedstock; it’s free. It comes up every morning and goes down every night.”

These low costs have prompted calls for a windfall tax on generators, as wholesale electricity prices are tied to the soaring sums paid for gas. Boyle insists Lightsource BP has not seen any windfall gains. “We still sell out the electricity at the same price because ours tend to be on long-term power purchase agreements,” he says. This locked-in income offers security for future investments, which are also funded by selling older solar projects.

Lightsource’s last accounts, for 2020, show losses of £42m – flat on the previous year – on turnover up almost £8m at £62.6m. “We’re definitely in the growth stage, which is why the profit looks the way it does. We make no apology for that fact … you can’t reinvest and expect to make bumper profits, too.”

Last year Lightsource secured £1.3bn of extra financing from 10 global institutions and Boyle said there are no plans to tap BP for funds. The oil producer, valued at £79bn, paid about £150m for a 43% stake in the business in 2017 – after six years away from solar power. It increased its holding to a 50/50 joint venture two years later.

BP’s return to solar and its recent marketing drive for renewable energy investments have drawn accusations of greenwashing. Boyle spoke alongside the BP chief executive, Bernard Looney, when, in early 2020, he announced company targets to hit net zero by 2050 to great fanfare. Some believe the oil firm should be more ambitious, while others, notably certain City investors, were concerned for its profits before this year’s Ukraine-fuelled windfalls. Boyle argues that Looney has “grabbed the bull by the horns” on the energy switch.

“There’s a marriage between different forms of technology – there’s a transition from where we’ve been to where we’re ultimately going, it’s not flicking a switch,” Boyle says. “We were sort of expecting an arrogance [from BP] of ‘we’re 100 years old, and you’re this little minnow’ and it just never materialised at all. We’ve found them nothing but supportive … they’ve let us run our business.”

For households, demand for solar panels has boomed as the economics of the investment have made greater sense. Boyle says that, while he is not competing with smaller domestic suppliers, materials and shipping costs have risen. In the US, solar firms’ share prices have soared.

On her campaign trail, Liz Truss reheated a long-running debate, suggesting: “What we shouldn’t be doing is putting solar panels on productive land.” Boyle rejects that argument. “Flicking a switch and a light coming on should be a priority,” he says. “I don’t believe that prime agricultural land needs to be used by any stretch of the imagination.” Since becoming prime minister, Truss appears to have softened her stance around some green technologies, notably relaxing the rules on onshore windfarms.

There are plenty of signs agriculture and solar are not mutually exclusive. Last week, the Spanish power giant Iberdrola began a pilot in a vineyard in central Spain where trackers are employed to move the solar panels to provide the right levels of shade to improve the quality of the grapes. Looking down at the stony, inhospitable ground at Manor Farm, it is easy to see why this field suits its unlikely bedfellows: hi-tech solar and sheltering sheep.