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Did you know… commercial roof space could be the answer for solar energy?

27th June 2022

Are solar farms the solution to the climate emergency or a blight on our countryside?  Charlotte Huguet, CPRE Surrey member explores the pros and cons of solar panels and shares her hopes that here in Surrey we can work to help prevent the climate crisis through championing greater use of solar energy whilst avoiding the irreversible industrialisation of our precious countryside.

On our crowded island, difficult choices need to be made if we are going to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Solar energy is one of the safest sources of renewable energy and can be part of the solution as we work to meet this vital climate action pledge. There are around 500 solar panel farms currently in operation in the UK with the construction of the largest farms – known as arrays – coming under increasing local opposition. A proposal to build the UK’s largest solar farm (around 2,800 acres in size) with the potential to power over 172,000 homes on the Cambridgeshire Suffolk border has faced strong criticism from Suffolk County Council, with Treasury Minister Lucy Frazer MP and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP coming out publicly to oppose the plans. The application is currently with the planning inspectorate for examination with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy expected to make a decision in Spring 2023.

What about our rural landscapes?

Relinquishing thousands of acres of arable land used for food production and farming would change the character of our rural landscapes irreversibly. There are downsides to constructing more solar farms – particularly the resulting local habitat disruption that comes from reducing farmland; but in light of the climate emergency, soaring energy costs contributing to the ‘cost of living crisis’, and the war in Ukraine, we clearly need to invest in more renewable energy fast.

Over the last decade, the price of solar electricity has fallen by 89% and with new innovations, energy output has increased by a third. Yet the government scheme to subsidise domestic solar panel installation has almost entirely come to a halt, hence why it has become more financially viable to build large scale solar farms. They are often developed by international companies, meaning local economies don’t financially benefit with profits going overseas. Notably the Norwegian Government is backing the proposed development by Norwegian energy giant Statkraft of two huge solar farms in Cornwall. CPRE Cornwall is campaigning against it, on a platform of Cornish farmland being kept for food and carbon capture not industrial-sized solar arrays blighting open countryside.

Unlike other renewable energy infrastructure, once the operational lifespan of a solar farms is up, they can be easily dismantled and the land returned to its former use. However, there is a fear that the land, after 25 years of accommodating solar panels will be classified as brownfield and could be developed further. Some recent guidance published by the BRE National Solar Centre has suggested that biodiversity gains from solar farms can be significant with only 25-40 percent of the surface covered by panels and over 95 percent of the site still accessible for plant growth and wildlife enhancements, such as allowing for the restoration of wild flower meadows, grasslands or hedgerows. Installing solar farms enables there to be a break in the normal cycle of intensive farming that otherwise can result in the long term degradation of soil and biodiversity.

As government policy clearly states, we should be turning to industrial and residential roofing; or condemned sites and other contaminated land for solar power, not productive farmland. According to the BRE National Solar Centre, if the 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial roof space in the UK was used for solar energy, approximately 50 percent of the UK’s electricity demand could be met. Currently less than 6 percent of UK solar power comes from commercial roof units compared with over half in Germany. The UK’s many hundreds of capped landfill sites are also ideal, especially those with a grid connection for electricity generation from landfill gas. These sites could produce electricity during the day and gas at night. Surrey County Council recently shared plans to build a solar array on a closed landfill site to offset its own energy consumption. Other examples of optimal sites in the UK include a disused airfield in Wymeswold and contaminated mines in Cornwall.

Site selection is a real cause for concern

Yet the site selection process remains a cause of real concern. There is a proposal for a solar farm at Gaywood in the Surrey Hills in an Area of Great Landscape Value (AGLV) that goes completely against government policy, as explained above. Next to the beautiful Staffhurst bluebell wood, developers hope to build a massive facility with 48,000 large black solar panels up to 3m off the ground, surrounded by high security fences. This wood is much loved by the local community and is an extremely popular beauty spot that not only is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but is being considered as part of the upcoming Surrey Hills AONB boundary review. Despite repeated attempts to protect the Gaywood site by planting more trees, its hillside location still puts it at risk. This development would also seriously harm the surrounding environment. Construction traffic would create busy polluted roads, and there could be an uptick in flooding in an already high-risk area. This has caused a huge level of upset in the local community, with very few local residents consulted about the plans.

Local resident Penny Gibson explains: “thousands of people come to walk around here and never more so than over the last 2 years with Covid, which I think clearly demonstrates the importance of natural beauty for the wellbeing of the community.”

Residents also believe the developers to be ignorant of the fact that the area has been classified as AGLV and seem to lack understanding of the complexities of creating a meadow there. The local community, who are strongly pro-renewables, are worried that there is a greater interest in profit and convenience than care for the local environment and community in the choice of this site. 

To summarise, investing in solar energy to tackle climate change is extremely important. So the government, planners, and developers must be careful to make sure it’s done in the right way and in the right place to ensure they maintain public support for renewable energy. The Devon countryside serves as a painful reminder of where this can all go wrong; with many solar farms, some as big as 163 acres, destroying the rural landscape.

 

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