For over 75 years, the Neaves family have been growing top and stone fruit at Little Sharsted Farm, in Doddington, Kent. Today, siblings Sarah and Edward Neaves, together with farm manager Will Dixon, oversee the 120-hectare site, currently planted with apples, pears and cherries.
With extensive ‘energy hungry’ facilities spread across the site, including a cherry packhouse, two 1,120-tonne cold stores, workshops and office space, in January 2017, Sarah and Edward decided to invest in two 50kw solar PV systems to power the farm.
Like many solar businesses around at the time, the firm appointed to carry out the work at Little Sharsted Farm unscrupulously pitched solar as a ‘fit and forget’ technology. The Neaves, and many other farmers across the South East region, were left innocently unaware of the impact which lack of maintenance can have on a solar pv system’s operating capacity.
“While most farmers now understand that solar systems need to be regularly cleaned and maintained, the company who sold the system to us kept quiet about this aspect,” said Sarah Neaves. “They also went out of business as soon as the Feed in Tariff dropped, which left us completely unsupported. Like most farmers, we are pragmatic and resourceful people, but we are growers, not solar specialists.”
While other commercial solar firms have come and gone, BeBa Energy UK is proudly celebrating 10 years in business. Constantly expanding and heavily reinvesting in the business, managing director Stephen Palmer is dedicated to helping farmers, like the Neaves, make the most out of their investment.
Knowledge of solar
In February last year, following up on a recommendation, Sarah contacted BeBa and a member of the team came out to assess the site.
“They had a great knowledge of solar and went through in detail the benefits of ongoing maintenance,” said Sarah. “They pointed out that our panels were dirty and needed cleaning and they also found that there was a problem with one of the inverters, which had not been properly registered by the original installer.”
Despite the equipment being out of warranty, after inspecting the data logs, which showed a history of faults with the inverter, BeBa successfully appealed to the manufacturer for a replacement. Within a matter of days, the system was back up and running, this time at optimum performance levels.
“One of the main issues was that we had no way of knowing how the system was performing,” said Sarah. “Our site electrician was unable to help, and so in September 2019, after a busy summer, we got back in touch with BeBa and signed up to the Premier Scheme. The team have now fitted a monitoring system and with their on-going support we can feel confident that our solar is professionally maintained and running at its best.”
Being part of the scheme, the team at BeBa will not only be alerted to any drops in performance but is also able to compare the yield with similar systems in the same area. This will allow the Neaves to build a picture of how their system is performing in a local context and the team at BeBa can ensure that it is on par with neighbouring systems.
Safe, efficient, robotics
As well as downplaying the need to routinely monitor and maintain solar, the installers also failed to discuss how important regular cleaning is. In a similar situation to many of the farmers and growers BeBa now work with, the Neaves’ system has been designed with little foresight to how it would be safely accessed in the future.
“Like so many other systems, Little Sharsted Farm would have been impossible to clean without breaking Health and Safety regulations,” said Stephen Palmer at BeBa Energy UK. “To tackle this issue and ensure that nobody misses out on effective cleaning, we have invested heavily in new robotic cleaning equipment. The state-of-the-art technology is the safest and most effective cleaning system on the market and yet there are only two other machines in the UK.”
With BeBa’s new robotic cleaner in operation, the Neaves were able to have their previously inaccessible solar panels cleaned in an exceptionally safe and efficient manner.
“It was long overdue, and the system now looks squeaky clean and ready for the summer,” said Sarah. “We realise now that we need to clean the panels regularly as the build up of dirt and Lichen not only affects the performance short term but will cause irreparable damage to the panels in the long term too.”
Dirty panels not only cause significantly reduced performance, but can also invalidate warranties, as hotspots which form on the covered cells will degrade the panels faster. Farmers and growers should also be aware that even the smallest amount of dirt can cause a magnified reduction in output as, depending on the system’s design, one panel’s reduced electricity generation capability can have a knock-on effect and cause losses across many of the panels.
“Anyone with a 50kw system older than three-years-old should be seriously thinking about having it cleaned as soon as possible and implement a regular cleaning schedule,” said Stephen. “Gradual reductions in efficiency caused by the build-up of dirt over time can be difficult to detect. Anyone who has been sold ‘self-cleaning panels’ should also note that there is no such thing. Nothing will prevent Lichen; remove bird droppings; or be able to cope with thicker volumes of dust and debris generated from farms, grain stores, or busy roads in high season.”
Honest professional help
As one of the UK’s largest solar pv experts BeBa Energy UK currently maintains over £100,000,000 worth of solar assets for clients. Looking to the future, with the solar system expected to last 25 years, the Neaves have now signed up to BeBa’s three-year service contract.
“We receive a nice amount of revenue from our solar system and three years is a short period of time in our world,” said Sarah. “The cost of the maintenance per year is far less than the loss of revenue when the system breaks. We also want to comply with our NFU insurance requirements, which stipulate that we should be able to demonstrate ongoing maintenance. BeBa have been excellent to date.”
While the original installation firm had left Little Sharsted Farm unsupported and in the dark about the realities of solar, the Neaves can now rely on BeBa Energy for honest, professional help and advice.