Catherine Strickland says that it’s time to look at the bigger picture when considering the popularity of solar energy development in the UK – and that mixed messages from the government could be detrimental to the UK’s energy security.
The interest in solar power developments has grown rapidly over the past few years, and now it seems to be coming to a head.
Renewable power is a must for the UK in order to ensure our future energy security, as well as comply with our climate change obligations, but I believe the sector is at risk of developing a bad reputation due to some developments being undertaken in an insensitive way.
Good sites take the community into account, as well as the technology. Any developer can identify a field that is suitable for solar development in terms of its size and proximity to electricity grid infrastructure. But if the sector’s reputation is to be protected, it’s also crucial to ensure that sites are chosen and managed carefully. For example, by selecting fields which benefit from existing natural screening to limit the visual impact on the landscape as well as engaging with residents local to the scheme and explaining the likely impact on their neighbourhood.
The issue of where to build solar farms is one that climate change minister Greg Barker has had much to say about recently. He argues that brownfield sites (such as airfields) are preferable for large scale developments, compared to farmland and other countryside locations.
Greg Barker refers to large scale developments on greenfield sites as ‘monsters’, and says they have the potential to turn the public against solar energy. Whilst I am in agreement with a number of his comments about the sensitivities and concerns with these mega solar developments, this issue also ties in to a wider agricultural debate over use of land.
Land is a precious commodity and in general can only have one use at a time. A common misconception outside the agricultural industry is that land is all the same. Land is categorised into different grades and in addition to this some land is protected from inappropriate development by greenfield status. For land that is classified as grade four (poor) or grade five (very poor), solar could revolutionise its use and provide much needed income to landowners.
To fail to consider these low grade areas or to consider greenfield locations as possible solar sites would be detrimental to the renewables industry – as well as to the livelihood of many hard-pressed landowners and farmers, unable to use the land productively for other purposes.
Furthermore, solar developments continue to offer a dual use of land, allowing it to be grazed safely at the same time. As the panels are temporary structures, land can be returned to its original state once the solar lease has ended, so removing the possibility of scarring the countryside, as would happen with permanent power generating structures such as coal-burning plants or even new biomass fuelled power plants.
Another factor to consider in the Minister’s argument over sites is the actual availability of his brownfield locations – just how many disused airfields are realistically available?
In reality, it is government policy that has driven mega solar farms, as changes in government subsidies and mixed messages to the industry have prompted the emergence of huge developments.
The feed-in tariff (FIT) subsidy was initially widely applied and vastly more popular than government predictions. Subsequently, the tariffs were heavily restricted, particularly for the largest solar projects up to the FIT cap of 5MW (approximately a 30 acre site). Unsurprisingly, when the FIT level reached parity with payments available through Renewables Obligation certificates (ROCs), developers capitalised on the lack of upper size limit for this subsidy and pursued economies of scale. The interaction between FiTs and ROCs inevitably encouraged these large scale developments.
The future of suitable sites for such large scale developments is also in question. It is not unreasonable to say that we will run out of sites for mega developments in the not too distant future. Greg Barker’s focus on medium sized developments, including rooftops and public buildings, is sensible as another way of delivering solar power, but it’s not a stand-alone alternative to large developments.
We need to ensure that renewables are a significant contributor to meeting the UK’s energy needs both in terms of low carbon energy and creating UK-based supplies. However, the grid infrastructure must be capable of supporting an evolving system of small-scale power plants. If renewable energy cannot be fed into the grid easily and developments are also blocked at every turn by the planning process, we will see our green investors go elsewhere to countries where developments are easier to build and provide more return on investment.
Comments such as calling mega sites ‘monsters’ are not helpful in the long run and, whether intentionally or not, ROCs are encouraging some developers to prioritise size over suitability. It is very easy to demonise all large-scale developments, but the delivery and build of these sites is a very complicated picture, and developments cannot be summed up so easily into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on size alone.
Catherine Strickland is an associate solicitor specialising in renewable power developments at Thrings LLP. She has recently advised on the UK’s largest solar development (41MW) in Oxfordshire.
This article is taken from New Power, February 2014 edition. Also in this issue:
Think twice before making changes to the Carbon Price Floor
Power project monitor
How does wind turbine performance decline with age?
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