A huge, multi-million pound solar farm located on land south of Reading has moved a step closer.

There are also plans for an electric vehicle charging centre nearby.

West Berkshire Council has embarked on the project between Grazeley and Grazeley Green, two villages south of Reading.

The Environment Agency (EA) has cleared the path for the solar farm by confirming that no environmental impact assessment is needed.

A detailed document sent to the EA reveals more of the detail of the plans, approved by the council in 2022.

A request for what is termed a screening opinion has been returned with the EA saying it does not need to comment.

The 45-hectare site runs across the north and west of Goring Lane, New Road and Goodboys Lane and is expected to produce enough energy to run 4,000 homes over the next 30 years.

There are no public rights of way through the site which is currently designated as agricultural land.

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The report says plans allow for the site to be used for 40 years as a solar farm, after which it should be decommissioned, although the planning permission was given for 30 years.

The EV charging area will be covered by a canopy and include rapid and ultra rapid charging points along with a toilet block and a café.

Battery container blocks will also go on the site, storing energy for reconversion back to electricity.

A 1.5-mile cable will connect the site to the National Grid to the north east of the site.

There are two other solar farms which neighbour this one.

One is to the north east and is up and running.

The other to the south west – which has permission to be built – is not yet built.

The council is yet to apply to itself for planning permission to develop the solar farm and EV points.

The financials around the scheme are still blurry.

Projected costs from the initial proposal of £10m have gone up by more than £6m.

The council hopes the thousands of solar panels at Bloomfield Hatch Farm could generate as much as £3.9m a year.

The agents for the developer – in this case the council – last year countered those in favour of keeping the land as farmland with potential revenue figures, along with the argument that climate change was a bigger threat to the future of food security than changing farmland into a solar farm.

Chris Faulkner of Wokefield Parish Council disagreed with the scheme at the time, saying: “The UK is not self sufficient in food production.

“We are on a downward trajectory and farm income from food production in this area fell by 54 per cent. This leaves us crucially vulnerable to world markets.”

He said farms were mainly purchased by councils between the wars.

Bloomfield Hatch is one of these farms and is home to a herd of short horn cattle.

“It also rears 90,000 chicks laying 28 million eggs a year,” he said. “It is a sustainable farm.

“It is West Berkshire Council’s responsibility to protect this for further generations.

“Solar panels would be better placed on brownfield sites, not on greenfield sites.

“This application confounds common sense and is likely to be out of date with future government policy.”

Details of previously kept-under-wraps business planning for the proposal also emerged, with the projected cost of the development forecast at £19m.

The council, in its own PR material announcing its intentions for the solar farm, put that figure at £10m.

It changed that to £12m in budget figures in 2023.

Digging into the viability of the site, it emerged that £19m repayment and running costs would be around £2m a year.

The council says with the detailed design progressing well, its next step is to build up a clearer picture of what the current marketplace looks like so it can choose the most suitable method of procurement when tenders are invited to appoint a contractor to start construction later this year.

The original business plan for the site has also been changed, meaning the council wants to put in a bigger connection – which costs more – and make more money.

Despite the impact of interest rates, rising material costs and other detrimental factors, the council said earlier this year that the latest business case, produced under the previous Tory administration, demonstrates that the provision of a solar farm at Grazeley is still a financially and environmentally viable proposition.

Officers will be asked to construct a deal, potentially with AWE at Burghfield, which it is claimed could create around £3m in income, and allow West Berkshire to claim a 37 per cent reduction in its carbon footprint.

There are no publicly available documents to show if this has progressed.

A report to the executive committee in December 2022 said the rise in energy prices has meant that the rate of return for the project has risen from the 2020 figure of four per cent to between 5.62 per cent and 7.60 per cent.

No up-to-date figures have been released on this.

Two potential grid connection options are available to the council, the choice of which could have an impact on the scheme economics.

Only one of these is mentioned in the scoping opinion sent to the Environment Agency.

The cheaper option – costing £14.98m – would involve laying a cable beneath the highway between the site and a point designated by SSE, a distance of approximately 3.4km.

Negotiations are under way with landowners to agree to shorten the route and reduce the amount of hard dig, however the worst case scenario along the road has been assumed for this business case.

The second, more expensive option, at £16.3m, is connecting into the grid via AWE’s Burghfield substation.

The council says informal discussions have taken place with both AWE and SSE which have indicated this may be feasible.

It says AWE has also expressed an interest in purchasing green energy locally.

The difference in cost from the grid option is due to a slightly shorter cabling distance to the AWE site, but there is a £1.5m addition due to potential work required to connect to the grid through AWE.

Early informal discussions indicate that AWE’s power requirements are such that they could potentially take approximately 73 per cent of the generated energy from the Grazeley site, with the remainder being exported to the grid.

Power supply agreements are more than 30 years and involve the purchase of power for a fixed price.

This gives the council security of income for the 30-year life of the solar farm and generates savings for AWE in that it will receive relatively cheap green energy for that time.

Consideration is being given to using the solar farm for sheep farming during its life.

The proposed scheme design also includes additional tree and hedge planting, the creation of ponds and seeding with wildflower seed-mix, and seeding for winter birds.

The scheme will also include the installation of bird and bat boxes across the site.

The Environment Agency response was published on West Berkshire’s planning portal this week.