The Crossens solar farm will be used to power pumps to avoid flooding. Image: Andreas Gücklhorn (Unsplash).

Recently, I provided an overview of the various UK government departments and local authorities that are currently investing heavily in new solar farms in the UK, as part of governmental, national and regional net-zero aspirations: UK government departments and local authorities investing heavily in new solar farms.

That article showed that one of the government departments that has been identifying new solar farm land in the UK during the past couple of years is the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Discussion was afforded to a mid-sized solar farm being built now by DEFRA (the Lea Marston Solar Farm).

This article looks at one of DEFRA’s other ongoing (related) solar farm projects; Crossens solar farm. This site is being developed by The Environment Agency (EA). (The EA is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by DEFRA, and supported by the Flood Forecasting Centre.)

What is particularly interesting about the Crossens site is the land that is being used for the solar farm, as discussed in more detail below.

The Crossens solar farm

In 2020, a megawatt (MW) scale solar farm (several thousand solar panels) was earmarked for the Crossens Pumping Station (south-west of Preston in Lancashire) as one of the Environment Agency’s ‘pathfinder’ projects.

A planning application (reference number 2021/0937/FUL) was submitted to West Lancashire Borough Council (and Sefton Council) in July 2021 and subsequently approved in February 2022. In July 2022, West Lancashire Borough Council signed off the discharge conditions, setting the site up to be built in 2022 as planned by the EA (DEFRA).

Everything about this project is groundbreaking, and immense credit has to go to the Environment Agency, DEFRA and related stakeholders for bringing this to fruition in 2022.

However, in the current climate of land grade and usage, the Crossens solar farm is a project that may not have happened if increased focus had been placed on historic land grade assignation.

First, the solar farm is on Green Belt land; but more crucially, it is on land classified as Grade 1 (the highest quality grade for agricultural land). This is actually somewhat unusual for any solar farm in the UK. In fact, I can’t recall a proposed – or built – solar farm in the UK that was exclusively on Grade 1 land, having analysed every solar farm site in the UK during the past 12 years.

During the successful planning application process for the Crossens solar farm, this issue (Grade 1 land use) was flagged up in documents (all available in the public domain through the above application reference).

The value of the project was highlighted during planning by EA’s principal planning consultant, Jacobs U.K. Limited:

“The EA is a non-departmental public body with responsibilities relating to the protection and enhancement of the environment in England. The EA recognise climate change as one of the key risks to the protection of the environment and to the fulfilment of the organisation’s responsibilities. In 2019 the EA set an ambition to be a ‘Net Zero’ organisation by 2030 and to explore the possibility of becoming an ‘absolute zero’ organisation by 2050.

“As part of its operations the EA manage around 360 pumping stations nationally, all providing flood risk management to local communities. The carbon emissions from these flood defence assets account for a significant proportion of the EA’s operational carbon footprint. The Environment Agency Cumbria and Lancashire team have identified renewable energy as one of their pathways to decarbonising their operations but have only previously implemented at small scale or on office buildings. In Spring 2020, the Environment Agency undertook feasibility studies at Lancashire flood defence pumping stations to explore pathfinder projects for renewable and low carbon energy technologies.”

In July 2021, the Planning, Design and Access Statement – also compiled by Jacobs U.K. Limited – stated that: “Grade 1 (excellent quality) agricultural land is mapped for the application site in Natural England’s Provisional Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) data, which is classified as ‘best and most versatile’. Post-1988 site-specific ALC data are not available for the application site; however, Natural England’s Likelihood of ‘BMV’ Agricultural Land map for the northwest shows there to be a high likelihood of BMV land at the site.”

It continued: “In the absence of site-specific information on soils, publicly available Soilscapes data produced by Cranfield University have been consulted. Soilscape 21 (loamy and clayey soils of coastal flats with naturally high groundwater) is mapped for the site, which indicates generally highly productive soils where textures are amenable to cultivation and drainage is sufficient. Although heavier textures may limit agricultural quality for this soil type, it is considered highly likely from the available evidence that BMV land is present at the application site. The application site is not currently used for agricultural purposes but could be brought back into agricultural use when the solar array is decommissioned, as the existing soils would be left in situ and could be reconditioned through cultivation.”

Even greater information was then provided: “While planning policy generally requires lower quality agricultural land to be used in favour of BMV land, it is important to note that the NPPG [National Planning Practice Guidance] in relation to solar installations requires demonstration that it has been shown necessary to use agricultural land and that poorer quality of land has been used in preference to higher quality land. Local Plan Policy EN2 also allows development on BMV where this is shown to be necessary. The site has been selected due to its proximity to Crossens Pumping station, in order to supply energy directly to power the pumping operations at the site, which will have significant environmental benefits. Surrounding fields suitable for accommodating solar array infrastructure are in current agricultural use and are also likely be classified as ‘best and most versatile’. It should be noted that the application site has not been used for agriculture for a number of years and that the proposed development is for a limited period and would not preclude a return to agricultural use when the solar array is decommissioned, as the existing soils would be left in situ and could be reconditioned through cultivation. It has therefore been shown that the proposed development while being located on BMV, is not contrary to the Local Plan and NPPG in this instance, given the particular locational requirements of the site and that it has been shown to be necessary to use agricultural land of this quality.”

In so many ways, this text – highly informative and excellently communicated – sheds light on the challenges of using land grading as a means of limiting solar farm deployment. It would have been a travesty if this EA (DEFRA) solar farm planning application had been refused in 2022.

Using renewable energy to power pumping stations that protect swathes of farmland from flooding is truly pioneering. Such projects address two of the most important issues impacting the world today: reversing global warming and tackling the immediate threats of fossil-fuel created climate change.

One cannot overstate the significance of the Crossens project: Green Belt and Grade 1 land classification aside.

Current activity on the Crossens solar farm project is being provided by The Flood Hub: see here . The website confirms succinctly the importance of the solar farm:

“The Crossens solar powered pumping station project is a regional first for the Environment Agency (EA). The station will be powered through solar energy with surplus energy produced. This energy will be stored for future use across EA infrastructure.”

The latest update is also very useful, again providing good information on the solar farm progress:

“Access to the project will be via an access road that currently exists for the site. Site investigations have finished and the project build will start late July 2022. A delay in the start date for the project resulted in improved options for the solar panels. There will therefore be a decreased project footprint and increased carbon savings.”

In respect of the visual aspects, the updates continue: “Your property will not be directly impacted by the installation of the solar panels, but the view to the rear of your property will change as the solar array may be visible. The design tilts the solar panels away from the houses to minimise glare and the site will be screened by semi mature hedgerows. There will be wildflower planting around the panels.”

Challenges remain for onshore renewables

It is clear there are problems still needing to be resolved in the UK in terms of renewables (solar and wind) on agricultural land.

Several different issues exist within this debate now and probably each needs to be resolved on its own before an overall solution can be found. One of these is clearly land classification, irrespective of what is being proposed by developers and planners.