Solar farm debate shines light on industry practice

A Westminster Hall debate on the development of rural solar farms yesterday has provided industry with a warning over poor practices.  

The debate, called by Sarah Wollaston MP, centred on what she deemed “the industrialisation of our countryside by solar farms”. Wollaston was keen to stress that she was not anti-solar but anti-inappropriately sited large-scale developments.

Before the debate, the minister for energy and climate change Greg Barker had answered a question from Wollaston in the House of Commons. Barker announced that he will be releasing revised planning guidance for renewables intended to give local communities more power over proposed developments.

Barker noted that the new guidelines would ensure that renewable projects do not “automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities" – a move welcomed by Wollaston.

Reacting to the new guidelines for solar farms, Robert Shaw, director of sustainability and climate change at LDA Design said: “Barker mooted the idea at a Solar Power Portal event in Munich a few weeks ago but when I pressed him on what he meant he assured me it would not happen until next year and not without industry involvement. It's therefore frustrating to see him apparently rush out an announcement so soon and without industry discussion.

“There has been some criticism over the development of greenfield solar farms which may have prompted the decision to bring proposals forward. The move follows a similar announcement recently affecting the wind industry.

“So while it seems like the solar honeymoon maybe facing its first storm clouds, and we will undoubtedly see more refusals of schemes at planning, it's important to see things in perspective. National planning policy will remain supportive but we are likely to see greater emphasis placed on landscape and heritage considerations in determining applications and more political decision-making by councillors.”

In addition, the Solar Trade Association has said that there could be a new 'sustainability criteria' imposed in the autumn which developers will have to adhere to in order to access funds from the feed-in tariff (FiT) and renewables obligation (RO). The STA is still seeking to precisely clarify this with DCLG and DECC.

STA head of external affairs Leonie Greene noted: “We advised DECC to develop standards for solar farms last year. They didn't and it's therefore no surprise that we're seeing some irresponsible schemes that risk damaging the reputation of the sector. Poor solar farms upset responsible solar developers as much as anyone. We are sorry to hear of the poor schemes which Dr Wollaston described and we do not seek to defend them. However, good solar schemes can and should support the local farmers she described, who are suffering collapsed incomes.

“As the leading solar association we are doing what we can to enforce high standards through our membership, and we look forward to working with DECC and DCLG to ensure any new guidance strikes the right balance.”

The association has developed a set of 10 commitments in order to support best practice in solar farm development. The commitments include a focus on lower grade agricultural land, minimal visual impact and increased community contact. The STA will be launching the commitments shortly.

STA CEO Paul Barwell, who is a member of DECC’s Sustainability and Land Use Solar Task Force, concluded: “We are currently working actively with DECC and key stakeholders like the National Farmers Union and Natural England to define best practice. It is right that there is a crack-down on poor field schemes but we mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“The danger is any knee-jerk reaction could go too far and we strongly caution against that. If the UK is to deliver on its carbon and renewable energy targets it needs solar power, including on poor grade land, and many communities actively welcome solar developments. We hope our work with DECC will feed into the new planning clarity and sustainability criteria the minister described today.”