Green energy trade seeks to win public support over 'ugly' solar farms
The green energy industry has launched a charm offensive to quell anger over the march of huge solar farms across the countryside that is dividing Westcountry communities. But Sarah Wollaston, one of the first MPs to raise concerns over "ugly" arrays being a blight, has warned critics should "remain vigilant".
Members of the Solar Trade Association (STA) will be expected to adhere to new guidance that includes pre-application consultation with communities, avoiding farmland used for food production, minimising the visual impact and be sensitive to protected landscapes.
Tauton Deane Liberal Democrat MP and minister Jeremy Browne this month said huge solar energy farms were a "monstrous desecration" of the countryside and a project spread across 75 acres of farm land at Diptford, near South Brent, Devon, is among the most controversial.
But Dr Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, said: "We need to be careful that we don't fall for a false sense of reassurance.
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"People are right to be concerned."
Meanwhile, the Western Morning News spoke to residents in villages in Devon's South Hams, who argue they are "under siege" from wind and solar schemes. Julia Stanley-Taylor, a Devon-based film-maker, said: "If we don't protect one of the last areas of natural beauty in Devon what hope is there for our children and grandchildren?"
The STA has made ten commitments, including returning the land to its former use at the end of the project life, which will typically be around 25 years.
Its chief executive Paul Barwell said: "When solar farms are done well they can be a force for good in the local countryside, as well as building national energy security and protecting the global climate.
"For the UK, with its beautiful countryside, maintaining public support for solar farms is a challenge this new industry is keen to take on by delivering the very best practice."
Separately, it is claimed a Government report on renewable energy and the rural economy is being blocked by the Energy Secretary.
Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey has blocked the report carried out by the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, headed by Conservative Owen Paterson, over fears it could expose shortcomings in his department's renewable energy strategy, according to the Daily Telegraph.
George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and David Cameron adviser on energy and climate change issues, said: "If we are going to make sound judgements about future energy policy we must consider all the evidence and it would obviously be wrong to stifle any government report which has been commissioned.
"Onshore wind energy has a role to play but will only ever provide a very small proportion of our overall energy needs. There are growing concerns about the impact in the countryside and it essential that any developments are done with local communities not to them. There should be more power for local communities to block unpopular developments."
But Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell and Newquay and ministerial aide to Mr Davey, said: "Nobody is blocking publication.
"We need to ensure that energy is generated in a way that is sustainable and understand the effects that different technologies have on the environment and on communities across the country.
"It's clear that a diverse energy mix is the best way to meet our energy security requirements, our climate change commitments and keep energy bills affordable."
Windy hill that’s set to become the Siege of Stanborough
As renewable energy projects continue their contentious march across the region residents in
one area fear it’s about to be hit by a plethora of applications. Martin Hesp has been to a hillside
in the South Hams to find out more...
It’s being called the Siege of Stanborough and – as the fort-covered hill in question happens to be the highest place in the South Hams – it is a battle that’s bound to have a high profile in more ways than one.
With a height of just over 700 feet, the hill on the Totnes-Kingsbridge road is windy – and being so far south, it is sunnier than many parts of the region – which is why the location is attracting applications for both wind turbines and solar farms.
The plethora of proposed renewable energy developments in the area is causing horror and concern among many who live in and around the scattered villages of Blackawton, Halwell and Moreleigh.
The Western Morning News was invited to meet a posse of protesters by film-maker Julia Stanley-Taylor who lives close to the proposed site of a wind-turbine which, if given planning consent, will be just a couple of fields from her home at Seawardstone. While there, we were shown maps that also featured “screening” applications for two proposed solar farms on the hill at Stanborough, as well as a proliferation of planned wind turbines across the South Hams.
One of the local residents protesting against the proliferation of renewable energy projects in the area was Anne Harvey, of Lower Cliston: “We are worried in as much as there are proposals for solar farms on both sides of the Stanborough to Halwell ridge and there are very important Iron Age monuments up there – and in the middle of it there’s going to be a wind turbine.
“So, basically, what we are seeing really is the Siege of Stanborough,” she said.
Julia explained she’d only recently heard about the developments: “We bought this house for the spectacular views and tranquillity. So ‘nimby’ – yes... Some people might say that. But the area now has so many applications for solar farms and wind turbines.
“If we don’t protect one of the last areas of natural beauty in Devon – if we don’t keep this landscape as it’s been for hundreds of years – what hope is there for our children and grandchildren?” asked Mrs Taylor-Stanley. “These things are a blot on the landscape, they are not efficient – and the only people who are benefiting are the farmers who are being targeted by big industrial companies and offered large sums of money to rent their land out for these structures.
“And who can blame them?” Mrs Taylor-Stanley went on. “There aren’t sufficient subsidies for farmers and a lot of them are suffering – who wouldn’t want to earn £25000 a year? But the point is: if we don’t protect this area, which is dependent on tourism, what hope is there for people around here?”
We were joined on the panoramic ridge by local resident and builder, Ian Hughes: “I’m concerned for my view and for my family,” he said. “The turbine will be 350 metres away from me – and it’s 150 feet high. I dread to think if anything went wrong with the wings.
“I’ve been living here since I was four years old – I’m 49 now – and the feeling of the parish is that this is horrific. We need power, but I’m being told a lot of these things are being turned off now because we are creating too much electricity for the grid.
“You only have to go to North Devon and see what wind turbines have done there. This is purely about greed – nothing here is going to help us locals – massive subsidies are given to these companies to do this.”
As for the solar developments, Mr Hughes commented: “I built a tiny cottage in which to raise my family and it took me nearly 15 years to get planning permission – but the solar farms just come in, get built instantly, and desecrate the landscape. It’s horrific.”
James Dixon, a spokesman for Mosscliff Environmental Ltd which has submitted plans for a single wind turbine at Blackberry Barn on the Stanborough ridge, said the structure was classed as “medium” sized and was less than half the height of many larger scale commercial applications being made across the South Hams.
“Mosscliff Environmental accept that all wind turbine applications, regardless of size, can be controversial,” he said. “We and the landowner have made all reasonable steps to ensure that the turbine has been sited as sensitively as possible and that all relevant information has been correctly submitted for review by South Hams District Council.
“This application has passed initial screening by the planning officer and therefore is a fully documented application. Most importantly our objective is that no harm will come to residents or to wildlife in the area as a result of this application.”
He said his company had carried out a full background noise assessment with an independent acoustic consultant.
“The conclusion of this survey and report is that the proposed turbine meets and exceeds the guidelines issued for siting a wind turbine of this size in this location.”
Mr Dixon also said his company had carried out a visual impact assessment which had concluded that the overall impact would be “generally moderate from the majority of the landscape areas and viewpoints.”
“The inevitable effects arising from the proposed development are, however, substantially reversible and, in the medium to longer term, after decommissioning, are anticipated to leave no net residual effect upon with the landscape or visual environment.”
But such findings do not impress protesters like Nuala McDonell or Ginny Davidson who successfully fought against previous applications for wind turbines in the South Hams.
Commenting on the plethora of wind and solar projects in the area, the pair told the WMN: “This proliferation is causing a huge upset – it seems to us that the balance is being disturbed across the whole area. Most people involved in the campaigns against wind turbines or solar farms aren’t against renewable energy. We feel that we need to have responsibility going into the future – but that should be about reducing our consumption rather than following, blindly, an industry that is bloated with subsidies that cost every person in this country money.”
Ms McDonnell added: “Many people here depend on tourism for their living – we don’t have big strings of hotels, we have a huge number of farmer’s wives doing B&B and the holiday accommodation is widely spread, it’s not just along the coasts. I think the tourists simply won’t come back if they find there are acres and acres of solar farms looking at them or if a wind turbine is keeping them awake at night.
“What we are all wondering is, why every farmer’s barn and every industrial building whose roof faces in the right direction isn’t covered in solar panels,” she added, referring to an initial screening (fact-finding) application for an array about a mile from the wind turbine submitted by a London-based company called Lightsource Renewable Energy Ltd.
“During a Commons debate set up by our local MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Minister for the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Greg Barker, said the objective of 20GW for solar energy capacity (ten times larger than the existing official objective) could be achieved if solar panels covered just 16% of suitable roofs of commercial buildings. So there is actually no reason to put solar arrays on farm land at all!”
A spokesman for the area planning authority said: “South Hams District Council deals with each site on a case by case basis and we are mindful of national planning policy surrounding renewable energy.
“While we are receptive to appropriate proposals, if it is considered that there are substantive reasons to refuse an application, for example on environmental or ecology grounds, then we will do so.”
Food versus energy production row flares
Campaigners expect a fresh push to build solar farms in the countryside after an industry study counted as few as few as 21 suitable brownfield sites nationwide.
More than 1,000 acres of Westcountry agricultural land have already been plastered with arrays of solar panels, with the total number of schemes now rapidly approaching 100.
The region’s industry body has backed the report’s findings but says developers must now take to the rooftops or risk sparking conflict between food and energy production.
Regen South West chief executive Merlin Hyman said recent Government planning guidance had given the false “impression” that pre-used and post-industrial sites were bountiful.
Mr Hyman has labelled the “green field bad, brown field good” debate as too “simplistic” but admits there is a limit to how much farmland could be used for ground-mounted” solar arrays.
“South-facing commercial roof space should be a key focus for solar in the future,” he added. “We don’t want to use up good-quality agricultural land and we don’t want conflict between food production and energy generation.
“The Government is right to support the use of brown field sites but it is probably giving the impression there is huge potential in the region, when there is not. Local authorities need to have a debate with their communities and encourage the kind of planning they want to see.”
In Cornwall, 36 solar farms have been approved, with 31 built, and another five are waiting for planning permission. In Devon, where permission is granted across nine individual council planning authorities, at least 46 large projects have either been approved or are still going through the planning process.
The favoured location by developers is Torridge, described by Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox as being at “tipping point”.
Around ten schemes covering 430 acres have been approved, including a giant 109-acre scheme – three times the size of the Eden Project – at Pitworthy Farm, Pancrasweek. Eight more farms are earmarked for development.
In neighbouring West Devon, 400 acres are subject to scoping or screening requests. South Hams, where Tory MP Sarah Woolaston has become a staunch critic, now has applications for around eight; East Devon has approved four with five on officials’ desks and Mid Devon has seen plans for five major operations.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has noted a remarkable rise in application in the past two years. A spokesman in Devon said all districts in the county are now seeing farmland targeted, with more expected to follow if alternatives are shown to be in short supply. “We are in favour of solar arrays in the right place with local support,” the spokesman added.
“We are not in favour of the use of agricultural land, particularly when so many better options, such as building roofs, already exist.”
North Devon CPRE spokesman and planning expert Bob Barfoot, said developments such as the huge Morrisons distribution centre beside the M5 at Taunton were the ideal kind of site, but the sector was “all about making money”.
“It is simply cheaper to put solar panels on green fields than on brownfield sites and the roofs of industrial buildings,” he added.
In Somerset, a series of increasingly controversial planning applications has prompted the county’s MPs to call for tighter planning controls.
Earlier this summer, energy minister Greg Barker set out an ambition for ten times more solar farms than are currently planned or already built, by the end of the decade.
But Mr Barker said brownfield sites – and not the West’s green fields – should be where this solar gold rush takes place. That view was dismissed as unrealistic last week by one of the leading firms behind the solar “gold rush” – German company Kronos Solar – who published the first major study of the viability of solar farms on brownfield sites. Kronos’ study claimed that of the 23,859 brownfield sites listed in England, almost 2,000 are too far north to be viable, and only 647 were large enough to be worth developing as solar farms. Of those 647, more than 600 already have other uses planned, and others are too far from the National Grid to be a place to create energy. Kronos claim only 21 sites have potential.
“The ability to focus on brownfield is a myth,” said Alexander Arcache, Kronos’ boss. “If we only develop on brownfield, we will miss our renewable targets. To limit large-scale solar to brownfield makes it impossible for the UK to reach its renewable deployment targets as it would mean the certain death of the UK’s large-scale solar sector.”
A spokesman for Eric Pickles’ Government department for communities and local government said: “We don’t recognise Kronos Solar’s figures, and any so-called research by a solar energy company which markets solar panels to farmers should be taken with a pinch of salt.”