Energy Minister’s 2020 solar target threatens to "industrialise" countryside

The UK is now firmly established as one of the top 10 markets for solar PV worldwide. Since January 2013, almost 400MW worth of solar power was deployed – despite one of the worst winters on record.

There are some 420,000 installations, although these are mainly small in scale and sited on residential and commercial property roof spaces.  While the government is keen to continue roof-top adoption, the only meaningful way to reach the ambition of 20 Gigawatts of solar energy by 2020 would be to increase the scale of solar arrays or farms. This would mean a 10-fold increase in the number of solar farms currently built or being planned. 

Completed projects include the 5 MW array at the Bentley Motors Factory in Crewe, the UK’s largest rooftop solar array; over 1 MW in the country’s largest “solar bridge” at Blackfriars in London and the 30 MW Wymeswold Solar Farm in Leicestershire, the UK’s largest, built on a disused World War 2 airfield.

However, not all brownfield will meet the needs of a solar farm site. According to the Homes and Communities Agency, the body responsible for regeneration, there are 23,859 brownfield sites listed in England. A new study has found, however, that 1724 sites are north of Middlesbrough and may not receive sufficient sunlight, while only 647 are large enough to be financially viable.

More than 600 have either already been allocated other uses or are unsuitable because of practical concerns, such as difficulties accessing the national grid. This leaves just 21 potential brownfield locations for larger-scale solar panel arrays.

This brings the prospect of other, accessible rural land in sunnier climes being placed under greater pressure – especially where farmers and landowners wish to diversify redundant or set-aside land plots. Energy Minister, Greg Barker suggests that about a third of the 2020 solar target could come from large-scale solar farms, where solar panels are arranged in fields. In order to meet this ambition, it is clear that solar farms will get bigger in the future, allowing the UK to produce more power more quickly.

The key question may not be about how many solar farms there are, but where they are and how communities feel about hosting them and the risk of “visual blight”. There have been 30 applications for large scale farms in Kent in the last year, many of which have been met with intense local opposition for fear of “industrialising” the countryside.

Receptive to the localism agenda, Greg Barker has said the Government could bring in new sustainability criteria to stop solar parks from receiving subsidies if tougher planning guidelines do not work.

Other schemes have been received more positively. The UK’s biggest solar farm is set to be built on the edge of Wroughton, near Swindon after being given the green light by planners last December.

The application comprises 160,000 panels, to be built on 170 acres of semi-industrialised land which lies within West Downs’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Despite objections from Natural England, English Heritage and Wessex Downs AONB, the scheme has proceeded and will contribute £40K per year into a local community fund, as well as providing residents the opportunity to get an ownership stake in the project.

Either way, larger scale solar farms will become a more common feature in years to come, especially in the sunnier South. The GroundSure Energy Report, available through TM, has recently been updated to include details of planned or existing solar installations, alongside other key planning concerns, such as fracking and power lines.

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