Rob Shaw the director of sustainability and climate change at LDA Design believes that solar farm developers should head Greg Barker’s warnings and take an ‘environment-led approach’ to site-selection.

Speaking to Solar Power Portal at Solar Energy UK, Shaw said that there were a number of challenges presented to the industry by both the government and the public.

Shaw pointed to the revised planning guidelines and the STA’s 10 commitments as markers of change, he said: “Greg Barker is very clear that he is a supporter of the solar industry, he would love to see it on roofs, but there is a strong place for the ground-mount market. So for us as an industry if we are to keep people on side, seeing solar as a technology that they are willing to accept – we have to treat their wishes with respect and we have to be responsible developers. There is a lot of evidence that we are doing that, and if we do that, then there’s a very long-term rosy future for the ground-mount sector.”

The site selection process for solar farms was identified as an area that the minister for energy and climate change wanted to see an improvement in. On site selection processes, Shaw defended some developers, he stated: “I think the problem that many developers have is that they don't have the tools available to them to know where to start effectively. So they will quite naturally look at what is the most challenging thing for them to deal with, and that almost always is grid connection – they will look at where the capacity is and head for those points. They might find a set of sites that are fantastic from that point of view – at that point they might start to try and sign people up, get better terms, get option leases arranged; and then they will come onto other considerations. Particularly environmental considerations.

“They’ll look at the agricultural land value, sensitivity in visual terms and I think the problem with that is that you’ve already gone a long way down the process before you realise that this site might not be suitable. What we need to do is for developers to think more carefully early on about the environmental factors, and to factor them in right at the start of the site selection process.”

In order to help streamline the process, LDA design was demonstrating a new geographical information system (GIS) at Solar Energy UK that is designed to help streamline the process. Shaw explained: “We’ve tried to bring together all the data sets that are out there and present them in such a way that makes it easier to take an ‘environmental-first’ approach. We’ve started from the outcome – a successful planning application – and worked back through the stages to work out what we need to know right at the beginning.

“That is as simple as: is it an area of outstanding natural beauty? Is it green belt? Then gradually, using geographical information systems, we visually show where the primary areas in relation to the critical factors of grid connection and capacity are. This allows us to sieve down to a very small number of areas, where we can then start to focus on knocking on doors and getting people signed up.”

Shaw concluded: “As a very minimum environmental concerns should be something that developers look at concurrently with grid connection, and whether there is a willing land owner.”

He added: “By thinking of these things in the round, we are saving ourselves a lot of time and a lot of money.”