The Solar Trade Association has published 10 commitments for solar farm developers to help ensure best practice in the increasingly controversial sector.

Opposition to solar farms has become more widespread across the UK. A groundswell of MP opposition recently forced Greg Barker to shape revised planning guidance for solar farms that places a greater emphasis on community engagement and opinions.  

The association wants all its members to comply with the new 10 commitments when constructing solar farms in order to ensure that the sector can move forward with public support.

STA CEO Paul Barwell noted that responsibly developed solar farms can be a ‘force for good’ for the countryside as well as the environment. However, public support for solar farm scale developments remained crucial, he said: “For the UK, with its beautiful countryside, maintaining strong public support for solar farms is a challenge this new industry is keen to take on by delivering the very best practice.

“Solar farms create no noise or waste, have no moving parts, require minimal maintenance and have a low visual impact, so it is clear why good schemes enjoy strong public support. We’ve been impressed by the level of enthusiasm from conservation groups telling us that solar could help their efforts to protect vulnerable British plant and animal species.”

The commitments are a result of months of collaboration between leading solar developers and the STA. The association recognises that community engagement and genuine consideration of local concerns are imperative for responsible solar farms. The commitments also urge developers to be sensitive to the local landscape as well as protecting the ecological value of the land.

Barwell explained: “Our 10 commitments set out the direction of travel for the solar farm industry, which is to deliver multiple benefits, not only for the climate, but for the British countryside. We want all our members to comply with these commitments and we believe the whole industry should get behind these standards.”

The energy minister, Greg Barker, welcomed the ‘10 Commitments’ and talked up the potential of solar in the UK, he said: “As the big roll out of solar gathers pace and the sector scales up, the deployment of solar PV must be carried out in a manner which is thoughtful, sustainable and respects both the landscape and the views of the communities among which it is deployed. So the STA’s ‘10 Commitments’ are a very welcome initiative to help retain the strong level of public support. I look forward to hearing the industry’s plans to take this forward.”

Patrick Begg, rural enterprises director at the National Trust, echoed the minister’s sentiments, stating it was “hugely refreshing and heartening to see the industry making a robust commitment to best practice when it comes to locating, setting up and then managing solar farms”.

The most contentious issue facing solar farm developments is the use of ‘prime’ agricultural land. The 10 commitments call for a focus on non-agricultural land and land of lower agricultural quality to ensure that food production is not adversely affected by solar farm developments. This aim is strengthened by the STA’s call for dual purpose land usage such as sheep grazing.

However, a number of conservation groups disagree that ‘prime’ agricultural land should be avoided as a solar farm development offers protection to exhausted soils or carbon saving peat land.

The National Farmer Union’s (NFU) chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change, Dr Jonathan Scurlock, commented: “Farmers are well-placed to capture renewable natural energy flows, while maintaining our traditional role in providing food together with other environmental and land management services. Growers and food processors have a long history of harnessing the power of the sun, and solar electricity clearly has a major role to play in modern agriculture. The NFU is delighted that lead solar developers have signed up to such a strong charter of good practice to deliver multiple benefits from the development of solar farms.”

The STA is also keen to promote the potential of solar farms in boosting local biodiversity by connecting developers with conservation groups. Solar farm’s role in promoting biodiversity has been welcomed by a diverse range of stakeholders including, The National Trust, RSPB, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Forum for the Future, Plantlife, Co-operatives UK, Pure Leapfrog & The Bumblebee Trust.

Commenting on the publication of the 10 commitments, Harry Huyton, head of climate change policy and campaigns at the RSPB, said: “The RSPB welcomes these commitments, which will ensure new farms are located in ecologically appropriate areas and will encourage developers to manage the farms so that they benefit wildlife. Where this is done, we believe that solar farms could be a real asset in our countryside by giving declining wildlife like bees and farmland birds a home.”

The STA’s 10 commitments are outlined below:

  1. We will focus on non-agricultural land or land which is of lower agricultural quality.
  2. We will be sensitive to nationally and locally protected landscapes and nature conservation areas, and we welcome opportunities to enhance the ecological value of the land.
  3. We will minimise visual impact where possible and maintain appropriate screening throughout the lifetime of the project managed through a Land Management and/or Ecology plan.
  4. We will engage with the community in advance of submitting a planning application.
  5. We will encourage land diversification by proposing continued agricultural use or incorporating biodiversity measures within our projects.
  6. We will do as much buying and employing locally as possible.
  7. We will act considerately during construction, and demonstrate ‘solar stewardship’ of the land for the lifetime of the project.
  8. We will seek the support of the local community and listen to their views and suggestions.
  9. We commit to using the solar farm as an educational opportunity, where appropriate.
  10. At the end of the project life we will return the land to its former use.

The increasingly controversial nature of solar farm developments was recently discussed in the inaugural Solar Media podcast as well as how the solar industry can work to protect its current level of public support.