Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance - Solar briefing
This briefing includes:
• Policy context
• Wiltshire's role in delivering national targets
• Cumulative impact
• Public approval of solar PV
• Roofs and brownfield
• Benefits to the countryside and to farmers
• Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance Solar Policy
The government’s UK Solar PV Strategy: Part 2 (1) was published on 4th April 2014. It should be considered alongside the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), particularly paragraphs 93, 97 and 98.
The NPPF states that:
• Planning should help in ‘securing radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions’. (Paragraph 93)
• Local Planning Authorities should, ‘have a positive strategy to promote energy from renewable and low carbon sources’, and ‘design their policies to maximise renewable and low carbon energy development while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily, including cumulative landscape and visual impacts’. (Paragraph 97)
• And, ‘approve the application if its impacts are (or can be made) acceptable.’ (Paragraph 98)
The Solar Strategy includes two non-binding goals:
• To install 20GW of solar capacity by 2020, up from around 2.7GW currently.
• To install 1GW of solar capacity on the public sector estate.
These goals for solar PV should also be seen in context of national and regional renewable energy targets:
• There is a government commitment to deliver 15% of energy from renewables by 2020, which includes 30% of electricity from renewables (2).
• In 2012 Wiltshire Council recognised that, ‘367 MW of renewable electricity capacity would need to be installed to meet the UK government target for 2020.’ (3, see below)
• More importantly, as recorded in the 2011 Camco study for Wiltshire Council, this must equate to about 655,000 MWh/year. (4)
In regard to large-scale solar farms, the UK Solar PV Strategy: Part 2 states that, ‘Support for solar PV should ensure proposals are appropriately sited, give proper weight to environmental considerations such as landscape and visual impact, heritage and local amenity, and provide opportunities for local communities to influence decisions that affect them.’
Wiltshire has seen a large increase in proposed solar farm developments in the last 18 months. While we are pleased to see the county moving closer towards its renewable energy targets, thanks almost exclusively to solar farm developments, we believe each planning application should be assessed on its own merits and on a case-by-case basis.
We do not support all solar farm proposals in Wiltshire, but have developed our own policy, which we use when deciding which solar farm developments we should support. These criteria include community benefits, ecological improvement and good visual screening – our full policy can be found at the end of this briefing, and on our website: http://www.wiltshirecea.org.uk
Wiltshire's role in delivering national targets
Last October, with the assistance of the Wiltshire Council planning department we compiled these figures:
• Installed stand-alone renewable electricity capacity in Wiltshire - 62 MW at April 2013.
• Approved capacity - 58.4 MW (largely ground mounted solar PV) - not yet constructed. (Assuming a solar PV load factor of 9%, this will generate just over 7% of required electricity, or 46,074 MWh/year.)
• A further 57.40 MW of solar PV applications were in the system.
• If all of these were granted planning permission then: installed + approved + pending capacity = 177.8 MW (48.4% in terms of MW)
• (Please note, these figures do not account for domestic-scale renewables. We are currently compiling updated figures.)
From these figures, Wiltshire is around half-way towards meeting the county’s share of the 2020 national target for installed renewable electricity capacity. However, once load factors are accounted for, we’re perhaps less than a third of the way there.
It’s important to note that currently it’s solar farms alone which are delivering meaningful progress toward the 2020 government target of 30% of electricity from renewables.
Concerns have been raised by a small but vocal minority who have expressed objections to the perceived cumulative impact of solar farm development around Seend.
Accumulation happens for two reasons:
• Firstly, quite rightly, there are protections in place on designated landscapes such as AONBs, SSSIs, flood plains etc. so you get more development in non-designated landscapes.
• Secondly, there are only certain places where there is grid capacity and where it would be economically viable to connect a solar farm.
Cumulative impact is taken into account during the planning process and if planners think it is an issue, they can request a cumulative impact study be carried out.
West Wiltshire is popular with solar developers because the area is free from landscape designations (such as AONB) and one of the few locations in the South of England where it’s still economic to connect to the grid.
It’s worth noting that even if all of the proposed solar farms around Seend are built, the land used will still account for just 1.3% of overall use within a 5-mile radius.
Solar sites are also easy to screen – so even if there is another site within a mile, people should not generally be aware of it. In fact Wiltshire has quite a lot of solar farms now, but the developments are well hidden and hard to spot unless you know where they are. In order to have a cumulative impact, a solar farm must first have an impact – and if it is well screened, there is no visual impact.
Importantly, there is not an infinite capacity to build solar farms in this part of Wiltshire. Once the grid capacity has gone, there will be no more – and Wiltshire may still be a long way short of the national target in terms of both installed capacity and MWh/year generated.
Public approval of solar PV
The Solar Strategy reminds us that solar PV is popular with the public, with approval ratings of 85%. It also calls for 'greater community engagement' in the siting of solar farms, and 'opportunities for local communities to influence decisions that affect them'. Of course we support this.
The government’s own data shows that solar farms consistently have the highest approval ratings of all forms of renewable energy technology in the UK, typically above 80%. (5)
Our own simple research shows this applies in Wiltshire too. We used the Calne Shout Out community Facebook page to canvass opinions about a large solar farm near Calne which has just been built. 29 people commented over a couple of days, 85% said they either supported it or hadn’t even noticed it – a typical comment being, ‘Didn’t notice it but it’s certainly a great idea, more places should follow Calne’s example’.
Experience shows that once solar farms are built, people usually come to accept them.
Roofs and brownfield
The Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance strongly supports the use of domestic, public and commercial rooftops and brownfield land for solar PV. However the limitations of these sites should be recognised, particularly in Wiltshire, which is a largely rural county.
It will be extremely difficult for the government to achieve its goal of 20GW solar electricity by 2020 without the use of greenfield solar sites.
To get the same amount of energy from, say, a 20MW solar farm, you would need to install solar panels on 7,000 houses (average 3kWp array). There are also technical difficulties with rooftop solar - not least the need for roofs to be flat, facing the right direction and unshaded, which immediately rules out a large percentage of building stock.
Brownfield land is also much in demand. Wiltshire Council’s core strategy planning inspector has called for more land to be made available for housing. Housing is more profitable, so it's unlikely that much of Wiltshire’s available brownfield space will be made available for solar.
Benefits to the countryside and to farmers
In addition to CO2 reductions there are other strong environmental benefits to be gained from developing solar farms. This is particularly true for low-quality agricultural land – land that can only be used to produce food with heavy reliance on petrochemicals. Solar offers necessary opportunities for diversification for farmers, who are already suffering the effects of climate change and the impacts of rising energy costs. Solar development helps to ensure some farmers are able to stay in business by allowing them to increase their income streams and become more economically robust businesses.
The biodiversity gains are also significant – for example, helping endangered bumblebees and other important species. The National Trust, Friends of the Earth, the Bumblebee Trust and the RSPB all support greenfield solar farms.
Greenfield solar actually helps to preserve the agricultural character of the landscape rather than destroying it as opponents contend.
Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance, Solar Development Policy (February 2014)
The Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance considers the following points to be paramount when considering support for solar farm proposals:
1. Solar developers should engage enthusiastically with the local community prior to submitting a planning application and throughout the consultation period. Local community includes site neighbours, relevant community groups, and parish or town councils. They should ensure their consultations are adequately publicised through a range of different media. Developers should demonstrate how public views and suggestions have been considered throughout the planning process.
2. Solar developments are particularly welcomed on roof tops or non-agricultural or brownfield land or, where greenfield, lower agricultural quality (Grade 3 or below) which can be enhanced with biodivesrity measures. Innovative schemes, such as water-borne developments, are also welcomed.
3. Scale and design of solar developments must be sensitive to nationally and locally protected landscapes and nature conservation areas, and existing contours should be used where possible.
4. Developers should minimise visual impact from key viewpoints and maintain appropriate screening throughout the lifetime of the project, for example with hedgerows and additional tree-planting to encourage wildlife.
5. Developers should enhance biodiversity across the lifetime of ground-based projects managed through a biodiversity plan, which should be published alongside other consultation documents.
6. Wherever possible, if an agricultural site is proposed, developers should ensure continued agricultural use during the life-time of the development, for example with sheep grazing and beekeeping.
7. Wherever possible developers should use local materials and labour in the construction and maintenance of their sites.
8. Developers and their contractors should act considerately during construction and decommissioning.
9. Financial bonds should be independently held to ensure land can be returned to its former use at the end of the project life.
10. Developers should ensure the local community is given an opportunity to share the benefits of a solar project - through a community benefit fund (guideline: £1,000/year/MW installed capacity); and/or the opportunity to invest directly through a community share offer; and/or a reduced electricity tariff or direct electricity supply to a local public building where applicable. Projects should also be used as an educational opportunity about the technology and benefits of renewable energy, for example by providing access to local schools.
Briefing compiled by Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall and ffinlo Costain
On behalf of the Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance
Tel: 07979 368238
2. DECC - UK Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2012, page 11. ‘The Coalition is committed to increasing the deployment of renewable energy across the UK,’ and ‘we’re confident that the UK can deliver 30% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020’.
See also: http://www.renewableuk.com/en/news/press-releases.cfm/2012-12-27-roadmap-update-renewables-on-track-with-wind-at-the-forefront
3. Wiltshire Core Strategy Topic Paper 1 Climate Change, January 2012 & addendum February 2012
‘It is clear that progress to deliver renewable energy in Wiltshire is inadequate […] around 367 MW of renewable electricity would need to be installed to meet the UK Government target for 2020. At the current rate of delivery this would take several hundred years to achieve.’
4. Camco Study: Wiltshire Sustainable Energy Planning Study, January 2011