Solar farm industry pledges to protect countryside
A series of commitments to ensure solar farm developments involve local communities and protect the countryside have been unveiled by the industry.
The move to deliver “multiple benefits” from schemes comes as a poll reveals strong public backing for solar farms, with support almost seven times higher for the large scale arrays of panels than for fracking.
The best practice guidance, to which members of the Solar Trade Association (STA) will be expected to adhere, include pre-application consultation with communities, seeking their support, and buying and employing locally as much as possible.
Solar farm development must also focus on non-agricultural land or low grade farmland so as not to displace food production, be sensitive to protected landscapes and minimise visual impacts of arrays.
And developers should look at dual use of the land in which solar farms are sited, for example sheep grazing, bee-keeping and pheasant rearing, as well as measures to boost wildlife such as bat boxes and wildflower meadow cultivation.
Opponents of solar farms have raised concerns that developments take land out of farming, have a negative visual impact on the countryside and do not produce much electricity.
But the STA said solar farms were a more cost-effective way of generating electricity than some other forms of generation such as offshore wind, and their commitments aimed to address the concerns about farmland and the landscape.
And the survey of more than 2,000 people by YouGov found that when presented with four options for energy technology located near them, 40% of those quizzed said their preference would be for a solar farm.
A quarter (25%) said they would prefer a wind farm, one in 10 said their preference would be a nuclear power plant and just 6% opted for shale gas fracking and boreholes, the poll showed.
The survey also revealed that more than two-thirds (67%) of people backed solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity farms.
Almost half of those polled (48%) were in favour of good quality solar farms that were sensitive to the community and environment while almost a fifth (18%) supported all solar farms because of the need to tackle climate change and boost renewables.
When the details of the “best practice” commitments were explained, support for good quality solar arrays rose to more than half (53%) pushing overall backing for the developments to 71%.
STA 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.”
He said it was clear why solar farms had public support, as they created no noise or waste, had no moving parts, required little maintenance and had a low visual impact, and that conservation groups were enthusiastic about how the schemes could help protect vulnerable wildlife.
“Our 10 commitments set out the direction of travel for the solar farm industry, which is to deliver multiple benefits, not only for the climate, but for the British countryside.”
Energy Minister Greg Barker said: “As the big roll out of solar gathers pace and the sector scales up, the deployment of solar PV must be carried out in a manner which is thoughtful, sustainable and respects both the landscape and the views of communities among which it is deployed.”
He said the Solar Trade Association’s commitments were a welcome initiative to retain strong levels of public support.
The move was also welcomed by conservation groups including the National Trust, the RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Plantlife, those backing community energy and the National Farmers’ Union.
Dr Doug Parr, Greenpeace chief scientist, urged ministers to start listening to what people wanted from local energy instead of driving forward fracking developments which would “turn English counties into their version of Dallas”.
“For all the enthusiasm for fracking emanating from the upper echelons of the coalition Government, the public would actually prefer to be near decent renewable projects like solar power,” he said.
*The 10 commitments, which solar farm developers, builders or tenants who are members of the STA will comply with, are:
1. We will focus on non-agricultural land or land which is of lower agricultural quality.
2. We will be sensitive to nationally and locally protected landscapes and nature conservation areas, and we welcome opportunities to enhance the ecological value of the land.
3. We will minimise visual impact where possible and maintain appropriate screening throughout the lifetime of the project managed through a land management and/or ecology plan.
4. We will engage with the community in advance of submitting a planning application.
5. We will encourage land diversification by proposing continued agricultural use or incorporating biodiversity measures within our projects.
6. We will do as much buying and employing locally as possible.
7. We will act considerately during construction, and demonstrate "solar stewardship" of the land for the lifetime of the project.
8. We will seek the support of the local community and listen to their views and suggestions.
9. We commit to using the solar farm as an educational opportunity, where appropriate.
10. At the end of the project life we will return the land to its former use.