Are solar farms and battery arrays in danger of suffering a de facto moratorium, like that which dramatically slowed the rollout of onshore wind? Speakers at a Westminster Hall debate on 5 June praised the wind farm restrictions and suggested similar limits be applied to solar and batteries.
The debate was kicked off by James Gray, Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, who was keen to stress that he was a “passionate environmentalist”, who had often visited both the north and south poles.
He praised a 250 acre solar farm at RAF Lyneham because it is “within the wire and it is entirely invisible to anybody nearby”. What concerns him is that “We in Wiltshire are being targeted,” and there is “a gigantic number of applications in my constituency for solar farms”. He knows of “at least four”.
He was also concerned that “Many of them would feature battery storage units, which are horrible, industrialised containers that often take up an entire field”. He later said that “absolutely hideous” batteries “do not make a single contribution towards renewables. All they do is store electricity that has been produced at a cheap time, when there is low demand overnight, instead of at an expensive time, such as during the day.” He is also concerned that batteries allow a wider choice of site for solar farms.
Gray suggested other ideal locations for solar farms: “We have car parks that are good places to put overhead solar farms… Every factory that is built should have solar panels on the roof. Massive areas in town centres should have solar panels attached.”
There are clearly tradeoffs. Virginia Crosbie MP (Conservative, Ynys Mon) also said she was “not anti-solar or anti-renewables”. She fears a proposal by Lightsource BP for a 1,200-acre solar farm on Anglesey that will be considered by the Welsh Government, and it is clear that it is an important decision and one that is taken “six hours away in Cardiff”. She feared that “in the rush to achieve net zero, however laudable, we may sacrifice vast areas of agricultural land”. Gray’s central concern was that if a council turns applications down, “unless it can demonstrate that the application absolutely did not fall within the current planning guidance, the inspector will overturn that decision at appeal, and the council will then be faced with substantial barristers’ costs.” No doubt developers would agree with that request for clarity in the planning requirements, so that they do not have to take plans to appeal.
Mark Pritchard MP (Conservative, The Wrekin) has visited the North Pole with Gray. He was concerned that planning “does not override the current use of agricultural land, nature reserves and sites of special scientific interest, which often happens with solar farms.”
Valerie Vaz MP (Labour, Walsall South) was sorry not to be able to follow up on plans to accompany Gray on yet another trip to the South Pole with select committee members. Her constituency also has an application for a battery energy storage system – one put in “just before Christmas” on 6 December. She wanted a commitment from the government and the minister that they are committed to protecting the green belt.
Matt Rodda MP (Labour, Reading East) suggested companies be incentivised to use “the large acreage of land that exists in areas with high amounts of solar radiation where it would be ideal to place solar panels, such as in the south of England and London.”
Mike Amesbury MP (Labour, Weaver Vale) reiterated with other MPs that “The justified concerns about the local impact of solar farms must be weighed against our inescapable need to build renewable energy, and lots of it, over the coming years in order to meet our net zero target by 2050, “ and added “It is always easy for someone to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in principle; it is much harder to say that they are in favour of renewable energy in a specific location.” He said, “it certainly needs to go somewhere, and that should be our starting point.”
Gray said he has sent the Minister a list of things to consider in new planning guidance. “There should be changes to national planning policy, allowing local authorities more scope to object to applications so that they can object on a much wider scale. Perhaps we should make the process similar to that for wind turbines. At the moment, it is much easier to turn down a wind turbine plant than a solar farm, but I think that solar farms and wind turbines should be treated in the same way in planning applications.”
Invisibility was a major theme for MPs. Jim Shannon MP (DUP, Strangford) agreed that a solar farm in his constituency “is acceptable because, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is not obtrusive and it is not seen” and Gray suggested “we should allow people to object to a solar farm because it damages their view”.
Responding, Eddie Hughes, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, recalled that the recent energy strategy sets a clear ambition for a fivefold increase in deployment of the UK’s solar capacity, up to 70GW, by 2035. But he said, “what it categorically does not mean is seizing large swathes of countryside and turning them into industrial solar farms and storage units”. He promised to consult on amending planning rules in England to strengthen policy in favour of solar development on non-protected land.
He pointed out that batteries “allow us to capture the energy created while the sun is shining. We therefore do not need quite so many solar panels, because the scheme operates on a more efficient basis.”
But his promise of maintaining a 50:50 split between green fields and rooftop solar prompted a response from Gray that “The whole thrust of the debate this afternoon has been that we do not want that maintained. We want significantly more solar power to be generated on brownfield sites and on buildings, and significantly less on fields. I would like to see it going to 70:30 or 80:20, or, come to that, 100% of solar farms being on reused land.”
He added, “The reason why all these Members are in the Chamber today is because solar farm applications are being made in their constituencies. We do not want them to happen; we want them to stop.”