Gareth Huw Davies

Conservation / Environment Blog

Now rural England revolts over solar power

Blighted landscape? A line of solar panels at Westcott Business Park in Buckinghamshire

Blighted landscape? A line of solar panels at Westcott Business Park in Buckinghamshire

Anybody who proposes a windfarm, or even a single wind turbine, in the countryside these days can expect a tough battle with the locals. Let the proponents advance any of the standard arguments – the need for urgent action to combat global warming, a quick and cost-effective response to the coming energy crisis, the fact that turbines are much quieter and disturbing than people might think – and many, perhaps most, aggrieved country dwellers remain unmoved. Only when local people have a share in a wind farm does the anger and the opposition seem to abate.

Are solar farms any less controversial? They are inherently benign, with no moving parts, low to the ground and silent. On the negative side, they do take up far more land than windfarms. Some people think that bats might collide with the panels, and that they could dazzle motorists. So now solar farms, too, have their rural detractors.

Proposals to build a (“vast”, in the Daily Telegraph headline) solar park on 73 acres of arable land in Hoveton, Norfolk, close to the Norfolk Broads National Park have upset a lot of local people. No matter that the 57,000 solar panels could power 2,600 homes, a big majority of people in the surrounding villages don’t want them. The park would take up valuable agricultural land, they say, and land of a higher value than is being admitted.

Interestingly another argument is that it will damage tourism, although there seems to be no evidence for this conclusion. Are we to assume that visitors who come for the tranquillity of the Broads will be put off by an equally tranquil energy generation plant right next door, when the most offensive thing it does is twinkle in the sunlight? I can understand people being put off visiting Belfast in the near future, but it’s quite an assumption to make that people like me, who might be thinking of a trip to the Broads this year, would now take my tourist pounds elsewhere.

If you want to judge the impact of a medium-size solar farm on its landscape, look at the photograph above, which I took from the National Trust property at Waddesdon in December 2012. Those panels are on the Westcott Business Park, and provide about third of its energy needs. There were a few objections in 2010 from local councils about possible reflection from the sun, but the local community seems to have accepted them without further complaint.

One of the reasons we can expect more, and perhaps a lot more, applications for solar farms in the countryside, and the prospect of in matching growth in opposition, is something called Swanson’s Law. This is the maxim, similar to Moore’s Law about the falling cost of chips in computers, coined by Richard Swanson, founder of SunPower, an American solar-cell manufacturer, suggests that the cost of the photovoltaic cells in solar panels will fall by 20% every time output doubles. And that’s exactly what seems be happening, as world prices fall sharply.

One of the biggest solar schemes currently awaiting approval is close to Peterborough. In reality it is three separate parks, 500,000 panels covering an area of 345 hectares. The applicant is Peterborough City Council itself, and it is on land the council owns. It argues that not only will the farms generate energy to meet the electricity demands of 20,800 households., but it will also make a significant amount of money for the hard-pressed authority. At the end of the proposed life, in 25 years time, it will make a profit of around £31 million, to be paid back back into local services.

One of the opposition’s counter arguments is that it would take out prime farmland, strategically important for growing the nation’s food. The council’s response is that it takes only 0.24% of agricultural land across the three grade types, with a “negligible impact” on the availability of prime agricultural land in the Peterborough area.  Six agricultural workers would lose their jobs, to be balanced against the creation of 46 permanent jobs, managing the solar farms.

One of the routine arguments against windfarms, that they kill the birds, has not yet been resolved – recently a Oxford university lecturer wrote in the Spectator that a very high toll was being concealed and disregarded. The possible harm solar farms might do is less clear. The planning process will take into account whether important nature sites would be covered up by the large expenses of solar panels. More research needs to be done on whether birds, and more probably bats, risk colliding with the panels.

As the cost of solar panels continues to fall, it’s likely the countryside will see a lot more applications for solar farms. In 2012 one of the largest solar park applications submitted in Wales was approved by Anglesey council. Panels on a 70-acre site at the Bodorgan Estate will generate enough electricity to power 4,500 homes. More solar developments of a similar size were approved in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

In January 2013 planners recommended that councillors approve proposals for a 22,000 panel farm near Doulting in Somerset, in the face of strong opposition from local local groups who thought the siting was inappropriate.

Not so far away the Somerset village of Wedmore has come up with a more positive way of addressing solar development. Plans have been drawn up to bring a community-owned solar plant to the village on 2.5 hectares of farmland. It could generate enough clean electricity to power 300 local homes.

However for the foreseeable future developers must expect stiff opposition, if only for the fundamental reason that a lot of people in the countryside don’t like change.

It is right that development in the countryside should be  appropriate, and in the right place, and the planning process ought to be able to ensure that it is. But it might also be said that people in the countryside protest too much. Drive  a motorway through some rural enclave and it is there for good.  As for the impact of global warming, that could be with us for eternity even if the process itself could be stopped.

The essentially ephemeral nature of these renewable energy developments is shown in the application by Peterborough council, which proposes to return the solar parks to agricultural use after 25 years.

Solar farm today. Rolling fields again by 2038.