ESSEX is a sun trap, apparently.

It may not seem like it on those dark and dreary days in winter when it never seems to get brighter than a fading street lamp, but it’s true.

Essex has the ninth highest potential to produce solar energy of any county in the country – but we’re not taking advantage of it.

The county already generates significant amounts of solar electricity each year, but it could produce an awful lot more.

Only 237 solar panels are installed per 10,000 households in Essex, putting the county 52nd, out of 91, in the league table of counties’ solar panels use.

Unsurprisingly the bottom three places in the league table are all in Scotland, with Cornwall topping the list with 527 per 10,000 homes.

Campaigners are now calling on Essex residents to go green and install solar panels to get the county out of mid-table and up at the top of the table.

Alastair Kay, editor of Green Business Watch, an online guide specialising in renewable energy, said: “For such a populated area and when you consider the wealth of solar energy Essex receives, the county could be doing so much better.

“Solar is a real resource in counties like Essex and local homes and businesses have an amazing opportunity to generate free, clean electricity and get paid for it.”

A 4kw solar panel, in our county, can produce almost enough energy to power the average household.

Solar panels on homes are not so contentious. In some cases, homeowners can offset their electricity bills and help the environment.

But it’s perhaps the wider perspective that is more contentious.

Stephen Hillier, Conservative councillor for the Langdon Hills ward, fought against plans for a 60-acre solar farm off Outwood Farm Road, in Billericay, but it was granted permission last year.


Mr Hillier at the Outwood Farm site

Despite his opposition to the plan he is not against solar power, or renewable energy in general, but feels building solar farms on the green belt is not the best way to go about it.

He said: “The site is very large and building on the green belt is not what we should be doing.

“I’ve got solar panels on my roof, but there are lots of houses out there without them so we should put them on roofs before we start thinking about green belt land.

“I was worried that, after the 26- year approval period, a developer would come along and say this is brown field land now and build on it, we don’t want back-door development on green belt.”


Like Mr Hillier, other homes in Billericay already have solar panels installed

Despite the protestations of Mr Hillier, the plan was approved by Basildon Council and similar plans are popping up across south Essex.

Southend Airport initially had permission for an eight-acre farm, housing 12,000 solar panels, declined by Rochford District Council after the plan was sited in a flood plain and too close to protected badger sets.

But, after minor alterations to the plan it was approved in June and, when finished, the farm will produce 25 per cent of the airport’s total power requirement.

Green Party campaigner Jon Fuller, who has been critical of the airport in the past, praised their green credentials but raised concerns about the Government’s attitude to renewable energy.

He said: “I gave them a thumbs up for that, the idea of a business using renewable energy is a good thing.

“There is no doubt Essex has huge potential for solar power, but at the minute the Government is consulting over the subsidy paid on solar panels.

“If they reduce it then it will have a big impact, not only on the production of solar energy, but on the economy as well, with potentially 20,000 job losses across the country from people who install the panels.”


Shine on - The airport site where a solar farm will be built

Another large-scale scheme was approved for green belt land in the Rochford District in April, which will provide enough energy for 4,125 homes.

The district council have a house building target of 4,000 new homes by 2021, which will essentially be accounted for by the panels that will be installed on a 50- acre site between Fambridge Road and Canewdon Road, in Canewdon.

It is not all positive news in the Rochford District though as last week Lightsource Renewable Energy shelved plans for a 16.3 acre farm in Hawkwell, off Gusted Hall Lane.

The company put plans on hold after residents made their opposition to the plan clear at a public meeting in August.

Following the feedback the company announced last week it would not be submitting a formal planning application yet.

Elsewhere in south Essex, instead of granting permission for super-sized solar farms on green belt land, Southend Council plan to make use of their available space and set up a scheme to allow residents to ‘rent out’ their roofs for the use of solar panels.

The plan could mean lower energy bills for residents as the council would install the panels for free, but take some of the power themselves and sell it back to the national grid.

Senior councillors labelled it a win-win scheme and deputy leader of the council, Lib Dem Graham Longley, saying the company the council intends to set up for the venture, would make a small profit.

He said: “Tenants will get cheaper electricity and in some cases their hot water will be free.

But this won’t be compulsory and the money we get out of it will be re-invested.”