In the UK, a new wave of large-scale solar projects continue to emerge as the country accelerates towards net zero targets, including reaching a decarbonised power system by 2035. At the heart of these are Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs).
NSIP solar developments are projects with a proposed generation capacity of over 50MW, and require a Development Consent Order (DCO) application to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate. Following this, there are further consultations and engagement with all interested parties, before a final decision is made by the secretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Several NSIP developments have been unveiled around the UK, including Low Carbon’s 500MW Gate Burton Energy Park solar project, the 350MW Cleve Hill Solar Farm, a project being developed via a joint venture between Hive Energy and Wirsol, the 350MW Mallard Pass Solar Farm, amongst others around the UK.
One of the largest solar NSIP developments is Botley West, with a generation capacity of 840MW, which launched its first public consultation in early November 2022. Project developer PVDP aims to submit a DCO application to PINS by the end of 2023.
The project will be split across three sites in Cherwell, West Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse. PVDP has been working with both landowners and landlords to support the project in the local area and support its renewable journey. This includes Blenheim Estate, with whom PVDP is working to ensure the plans are aligned with the landowners’ long-term strategies.
Solar Power Portal speaks with Mark Owen-Lloyd, project lead for the Botley West project at PVDP, to find out more about the public consultation process, issues surrounding public perception of solar projects and how NSIP projects could be key in unlocking the UK’s budding renewable sector.
A lack of public awareness
“These consultations reveal not only a public ignorance, but also an absolute vacuum in public policy,” Owen-Lloyd says in response to the public consultations on the Botley West project.
“[The Botley West project] is a hard sell to immediate neighbours such as people who are located three fields away from the project – they don't want to change the way the countryside is which you can understand with West Oxfordshire already saturated with housing applications.
“They are building a new garden village, which is 2800 houses, and people have quite rightly asked us why they don’t have solar panels on their roofs – there's no planning policy for that. West Oxfordshire District Council tried to force them to put solar panels on every single house, but the planning inspector booted it out. Is planning so antediluvian that we have no renewables policy?”
Renewable policy will undoubtedly be crucial to help scale renewable technologies and reduce the carbon footprint of many residential and commercial buildings. Many domestic and industrial and commercial rooftops currently unused will be utilised for solar generation going forwards, helping to reduce energy bills and a cleaner environment for all.
While rooftop solar will have a key role to play however, as Owen-Lloyd recognises this will not go far enough to be able to reach net zero.
“Unfortunately, it’s not enough. We're not going to get 32GW of solar from all the rooftops,” he says.
“The fact that if we all put electric boilers in, as we're going to have to as an alternative to gas, and buy an EV, our electricity consumption will double or even treble. Combined with a really high price, we've got increasing demand and no real plan for meeting that demand.”
This indication showcases the need for these large-scale, high generation NSIP projects that can offer masses of renewable capacity for many homes, businesses and industrial practices. Doing so will massively reduce the carbon footprint of the local area.
Educating the public on the perks of solar energy
Public consultations do however grant several opportunities for project developers to engage with the local communities and answer any concerns that may be presented. To this end, education purposes granted through the use of public consultations could be invaluable to projects currently in development and Botley West is no different.
“There’s a lot of education you can do via consultations, and this is really important because a lot of people who come to them are open to being persuaded. We've had a very high attendance so far and interestingly, the parish councils have been very supportive,” Owen-Lloyd says.
“It's good to get out there and talk to people about it and I think we got a lot of support. The feedback coming on our channels has been about 50/50 of support and condemnation, so we're hitting the spot with some.”
As stated by Owen-Lloyd, the public consultations have been an opportunity to guide not only their initial proposal for Botley West, but also to educate the general public on the project and alleviate some of the concerns surrounding it.
Another positive is the high attendances for the consultation. Clearly solar projects are becoming more and more prominent in the UK and thus educating more of the public on the positives of developments such as NSIP projects could have a widespread effect that could potentially been a boon for the solar industry.