When the Hadlow Estate in west Kent opened a solar park in 2014, it did not expect to be generating enough electricity to boil four million kettles in a day. But that is what it has achieved less than a decade later, helping to power thousands of homes in the area.
Renewables are important to Hadlow, which has arable farmland, orchards, pasture and woodland, as well as a portfolio of residential and commercial property.
The estate believes it has a role to play in the provision of sustainable clean energy for the local community, and helping to contribute to the government’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2014, Hadlow brought forward a 64-acre, 14-megawatt (MW) solar park in Capel next to the London-Ashford railway line, in partnership with British Solar Renewables (BSR); BSR went on to build the park once planning approval was obtained. A few years later, Cubico Sustainable Investments invested in the park’s infrastructure, buying it from BSR, and it now leases the land from the estate.
The 72,000-panel park now produces enough energy to power more than 5,000 homes a year, with an average annual output of more than 18MW. Even higher peaks were achieved last year when supply reached 13,000 homes – or 4.2m kettles boiled – in one 24-hour period. Harry Teacher, who runs the estate with wife Kate, says: “Our aim was to provide green energy for local homes and businesses, so it is fantastic to see we are fulfilling what we set out to achieve. “Diversification into renewable energy has been an important aspect of our long-term strategy for the estate as we look to the future.
“We also decided to install solar panels on many of our farm buildings, including at Hadlow Place Farm, Bank Farm Livery Stables and Little Fish Hall Farm. Electricity from these panels runs our cold stores, the estate and farm office, and a number of houses, including our home, and unused energy is exported back to the grid.”
As well as providing energy, the park and its surroundings are home to an abundance of wildlife thanks to its hedges, trees and wildflower meadows. Bird and bat boxes have been installed in nearby woodland to provide roosting sites and nesting opportunities.
Harry says: “Our farm team planted over 5,000 hedgerow shrubs and 200 trees. The hedgerows were planted to screen the site and are now well-established and provide habitats and food sources for a wide range of birds and animals. By linking up with existing treelines, these new hedges have created valuable wildlife corridors and enhanced connectivity around and across the site, which is great for biodiversity.
“Monoculture arable crops have been replaced by grassland, including almost 10 acres of species-rich wildflower meadows full of daisies, clover and scabious and five acres of tussocky grass. These meadows are always teeming with insects and are carpeted with flowers in the late spring and summer.”
It is these wider environmental benefits that are a source of pride for Kate, who was delighted to show the results to a group of pupils from a local school when she hosted a field trip. She says: “We planted over a kilometre of hedgerows as part of the screening, and I was astonished at how quickly birds and wildlife moved in.
“It’s also served as a useful educational resource. It was very enjoyable to host the field trip and teach the pupils how we farm sunlight and for them to learn more about solar energy, farming and diversification.”
In addition to the solar park, the estate has diversified into other renewable energy solutions, using its timber for a small biomass district heating system at Hadlow Place Farm. The biomass boiler is fed by woodchip from the estate’s forestry operations and provides heating and hot water to several buildings on site.
The boiler’s total annual output is over 30,000 kWh, with the estate’s holistic approach enabling it to invest back into its woodlands for the long term. Woodland Manager Rick Vallis, who looks after almost 1,000 acres, says: “The timber used for the biomass operations is produced from our woodlands as part of ongoing harvesting operations, such as the thinning of conifer stands or coppicing of sweet chestnut. “It’s a carefully and sensitively managed process, with all works planned and approved in advance by the Forestry Commission and agreed with the RSPB, which manages much of the woodland as a nature reserve.”
Thinning and coppicing operations are planned according to the age and quality of the timber crops. Lower-grade material is selected for the wood chipping process, with 120 dry tonnes burnt a year, while the better timber is sold onto local sawmills for conversion to sawn timber produce or fencing material. Rick says: “Alongside the obvious environmental benefits of using biomass as an alternative to gas, it’s also a very sustainable manner to manage the woodlands. In the future, as part of our woodland management plan, we will be gradually converting areas of mature conifer plantation to native broadleaf species, and any replanting undertaken will always incorporate an element of those species suitable for our wood fuel supply chain.”
As well as burning less gas, there are benefits for wildlife and biodiversity, though Harry says more active management is required compared to the solar park. “The careful management of our woodlands and the thinning work creates a diverse range of habitats for insects, birds, wildlife and plants by opening up the forest floor and allowing light to flood in. This creates a mosaic of habitats across the woodland, helping a range of different species to thrive.”
Over time, the family has learnt a lot about the advantages of both biomass and solar, how they help reduce their carbon footprint and how different parts of the estate contribute to its aims. Kate says: “It’s been very rewarding. We took the plunge when we did and are proud to be actively contributing to local energy generation, which is fossil fuel free - it’s a real sense of achievement.”