The Solar Farm Gold Rush is over

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Solar Farm (c) Miles King

 

 

 

 

 

 

This spring it was almost as though there was a gold rush around here, but the gold was a very generous public subsidy for private landowners to build solar farms; and the subsidy magically vanished on the 31st March this year. The gold rush was over. And many hundreds perhaps thousands of hectares of land across the south-west of England were covered in shiny new solar panels.

The subsidies, which had been more generous previously, had led to a one thousand percent increase in the area covered by solar farms across England in the last five years, from 10ha in 2009 to over 1000ha in early 2015. Out of the 380 solar farms which are generating electricity, an amazing 190 (data here) or exactly one half were built in the south west of England (which I count as including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Avon, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Wiltshire.) No wonder it feels like solar farms have popped up all over the place down here. Another 25 farms have planning permission in the south-west, out of 77 across England and Wales. This includes the proposed Rampisham Down Solar Farm, about which I have written on many occasions.

It cannot be any surprise to anyone that this level of industrial development (for that is what solar farms are) on previously agricultural land was going to create discontent in the south-west, an area built on a long and fine tradition of discontent. This is partly because of the visual impact of solar farms on the landscape. They are shiny, they are metallic, they have high security fences and cctv cameras. What they look like, more than anything else, are detention camps for solar panels. It only takes on solar farm covering say 20 acres, in an open landscape, to alter how that landscape looks, or feels from nearby viewpoints. This is regardless of whether the solar farms are a good thing, producing renewable electricity.

And it therefore should come as no further surprise that Farming minister and Cornish MP George Eustice should reflect that concern in comments made recently at the Devon Show, where he said solar farms were “trashing the countryside in Cornwall”

and

“There is a public policy issue here that politicians have t0 address and that is the impact of renewables on the beautiful landscape of the South West. Some parts have certainly got far too many solar farms.”

Eustice, I am pleased to say, also noted with concern the massive increase in the area of Maize in the south-west, which is grown to feed anaerobic digester plants to produce biogas. I have also written about this scam before. Renewable energy this most certainly is not.

Needless to say the Country Landowners and Business Association hit back hard against their good friend at Defra. CLA’s Ross Murray said

“It is unacceptable for on the one hand Government policy to promote investment in solar power and at the same time ministers to talk about stopping solar panels because they are trashing the countryside. We need a policy that gives businesses the ability to make plans”.

On the one hand I can sympathise with the CLA – society does need landowners to invest in the long term, where that investment can benefit society. Politicians chopping and changing their minds on policies which have multi-decadal implications for land management is deeply unhelpful. But then the landowners are not forced to chase after the latest subsidies, are they? And this is exactly what they have been doing with solar farms. As I wrote previously, landowners can get £1000 an acre per annum to rent land to a solar farm developer. As a 25MW farm covers about 50 acres, you can do the calculations.  This is an astonishing amount of money by any standards, especially as it is being paid by taxpayers. Unlike farming, where the subsidy is around £80 per acre, and then there is the risk that the harvest fails, or your livestock succumb to disease, the return on a solar farm is guaranteed, for doing nothing. Pretty much all the money goes to the solar farm developer and the landowner, but the local community benefits very little, apart from some token voluntary payments into community funds.

Community Involvement

As one way to get communities to support the production of renewable energy in their areas, DECC have been encouraging community buy-in to things like solar farms. This means that local community members or groups can invest directly in a local solar farm and reap financial benefits from it, as well as being supplied with renewably sourced electricity. This was something which DECC seemed keen to promote, but sadly the Treasury had other ideas and earlier this year removed key financial incentives making community-led energy schemes much less viable. Was this an example of Osborne’s heavies putting the knife in to the Lib Dems in the run up to the election? History will eventually tell us what happened. Nevertheless the Solar Trade seemed keen to promote the idea of community involvement in solar farms and amended their Ten Solar Commandments to include “thou shalt involve thy local community (where commercially viable)”.

Note the caveat, because let’s not forget that for all the good words about renewable energy, many solar farms are built by subsidy-driven solar farmers, such as British Solar Renewables. Perhaps, sensing that the subsidy stream for solar farms is now drying up, they have rebranded themselves to British Renewables (no solar).

Community Heat and Power

Now with profit-driven businesses like BSR around, one would hope that there were independent sources of advice and support for local communities considering entering into some sort of financial arrangements with developers of solar farms. Community Heat and Power, about whom I have written before, put themselves forward as providing that independent expert advice.

“CH&P is an independant (sic) organisation which can listen to you” they say to local community groups, who may be opposing the development of a solar farm, or trying to extract community benefits from a solar farm developer.

I have been trying to find out who owns CH&P to determine just how independent they are. Last year they were owned by Community Utilities Limited, as I explained in my previous blog, but it wasnt possible to tell who owned CUL. Now that accounts have been filed I have a bit more information.Although the directors of CUL, Hannah Lovegrove and Julian Brooks, own 5% of CUL shares each, 90% of the company is owned by a Galion Consulting limited, which is a new company as of last August. Galion Consulting Limited is in turn wholly owned by Galion Holdings Limited. Galion Holdings is a new limited company with one Director, Angus MacDonald, and 2 shares worth £1 each. Once again as it’s a new company, it’s not possible to tell who owns the shares. It may be a coincidence that Angus MacDonald is the main shareholder in the very similarly named Galion Homes Limited. MacDonald was doing housing developments before he got interested in solar farms.

Angus MacDonald is Chief Executive of British Solar Renewables.

 

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in British Solar Renewables, community heat and power, Rampisham Down, renewable energy, Solar Farms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to The Solar Farm Gold Rush is over

  1. jean colville says:

    The whole solar industry sicken me, it is driven by greed, we are fighting to save 90 precious acres in Lancashire, greenbelt growing land, one of the directors of Greenswitch has put his house on the market as plans are in for a solar farm near him.He doesn’t want to live near one it would devalue his property.To me solar farms are green energy at it’s worst

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Jean. I support the idea of the UK getting a proportion of its electricity from solar energy, but even in Dorset we are fairly far north and even on the longest days the sun here is just not that strong. It’s never going to be the whole answer to our energy needs.

      Solar panels should be going on roofs not fields, and the Government should be investing our taxes into publicly owned solar power run by and for local communities and local businesses, not handing over huge subsidies to private landowners and solar subsidy farmers.

  2. Jane Pursey says:

    Angus Macdonald gets about doesn’t he? I have always been of the opinion solar panels, if we have to have them, should go on roofs and brown field sites, I was told the other evening that if people have them on their roofs, the space the panels occupy is then owned by solar panel/energy people, who in turn could make things difficult if people wanted to sell the house, is this correct do you know?

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Jane. solar panels the home owner buys for their roofs become part of the house and are sold on with the house when it is sold.

      I expect in the circumstances you describe, where roofs are effectively leased to solar power companies, the legal agreements will make it clear where the liabilities fall. I would be surprised if this caused difficulty when selling a house with panels, as it must happen all the time.

      • Anonymous says:

        It can make it difficult, but primarily I think because it is new and banks have not yet decided how much of a risk it is to them to fund the purchase of a property part of which is leased to somebody else.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure it is over yet. Certainly in the south-west much of the grid is at capacity, but this is just sending developers further north. For example in Lincolnshire there is currently a planning application being developed for a 250 acre site, on land currently being used to grow crops (see http://www.granthamjournal.co.uk/news/local/villagers-voice-anger-over-plans-for-245-acre-solar-farm-near-grantham-1-6793374). In this case it is a sloping site which will be impossible to screen, crossed by rights of way, next 2 ancient woodland and within 2 miles of an (apparently unsuitable) disused airfield. This is in spite of government policy, and in the context of a lack of scientific, independent evidence regarding long-term impacts on biodiversity, soil etc. The impacts may be minimal, but the truth is that we simply don’t know which is not the same as their being a positive impact, no impact or a negative impact. While it is still possible to get permission for developments on green fields on a large scale there is little incentive to develop on more expensive rooftops, or brownfield sites. Though some solar farms are likely to have to be built on greenfields, ensuring (as the government is trying to) that these are on lower grade land, at a small scale will mitigate many of the negative impacts ad help retain the favourable view of solar energy that many people (myself included) have.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks for your comment. While it may be seen to be desirable to develop solar farms on lower grade agricultural land, this land can have value for other things, nature for example. This has been the case at Rampisham Down, which is very low grade agricultural land, but so important for nature that it has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

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  6. Gail says:

    I have read with great interest your articles about solar energy farms. My own village of Stockton-on-Teme, Worcestershire currently has a planning application for a 20 acre – nineteen thousand solar panel farm with all the ancillary buildings and security fencing. Stockton-on-Teme is set within the beautiful Teme Valley and until the countryside definitions were recently altered it was an area of Natural Beauty. The solar farm will be a blot on the far reaching views, especially from a local grade 11 ancient church, as well as affecting views of local properties. I was most interested to read your detail about whether a solar farm is ‘Grid-permissioned’ or not. I have been told that Western Power will have to upgrade the line from Stockton-on-Teme to Ludlow (19 miles away) at a very expensive cost so that the power generated can be used.

    Our community was dismayed when we eventually found out about this planning application. It had been slipped in quietly and there had been no pre-consultation with the local community by the company leasing the green field site from the local farmer. Once the nature of the community’s objections were evident, then we had an invitation from the leasing company to attend a meeting to learn about the proposed solar farm. The experience from this meeting was that only the leasing company and the farmer would benefit and us the local community would be the ones hosting this blot on the landscape for the next 25 years.

    The leasing company’s landscape architects report suggests that we are worrying too much over the visual impact as the solar farm will look just like a vineyard. They evidently drink a different wine than most of us do!

    Those of us objecting to the solar farm are not against solar power when located on brownfield sites or industrial roofs. Many of us have solar panels on our own roofs. I am sorry this is rather a rant, but having lived in Stockton-on-Teme for the last 23 years it is countryside most precious to me. Any advice on how this planning application can be halted would be greatly appreciated.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Gail. Many communities eg Aller in Somerset around the country have rejected solar farms being imposed on them without consultation and I would point you in their direction for help and sharing their experiences. Conversely, other communities have welcomed solar farms and have been closely involved in their development eg Westmill Solar in Oxfordshire.

  7. Lesley beesley says:

    I am a resident here in stockton – in fact my property is specifically mentioned as being impacted by this proposal in the planning application. I didn’t even know about it until thewhole thing was well underway – no consultation at all and it was very clear that the developers were trying to sneak this in under the wire, as it were. The farmer concerned is outraged that so many villagers are opposing his plans. There will be no benefit whatsoever to our community – incidentally a Domesday village – the only people to benefit will be the farmer and the solar panel suppliers. Their desire to exploit government subsidies. The proposal includes plans to build a fully functioning road only yards from my peaceful home. The noise and construction of this alone will despoil my home for decades and the view from my home destroyed – and all so that the landowner and the developer can turn a profit on land previously farmed. No villager will derive any benefit whatever from this proposed blot on our beautiful landscape. You can be very sure that if I owned land around the landowners house and wanted to cover it in solar panels he would fight it tooth and nail! From all I have read I understand the revenue to the landowner to be in the region of £1000 per acre. Easy money if the plan gets approved before the deadline runs out on subsidies – and a dreadful eyesore we shall have to live with forever. There’s not even the possibility of cheap power for the residents – who are paying for the whole thing through our taxes anyway. Essentially we are being asked to pay to have this awful thing on our doorstep and the vast majority are violently opposed to it. The small number in favour significantly reside amid a location entirely surrounded by land owned by the farmer.
    I’ve said publicly that if I could see any benefit to the community or to myself personally in cheaper energy then I may reconsider my objection – but since all benefit will accrue
    entirely to the landowner and the developer I see absolutely no point in taking the frankly naive view that I should be more altruistic in my outlook. Once our countryside is covered in these monstrous things we’ll never get it back. Gail is correct in what she says and the opposers have been entirely reasonable in the points they have made – and have been subjected to much abuse from certain parties because we are preventing someone from making money – and not because we are opposed to green energy to solve the global warming problem. We aren’t nimbys – some of us are realists to see the proposal for what it is rather than how the developers want us to see it.

  8. Jane Pursey says:

    I sympathise with you, as this inevitably splits a community, I don’t know how far on you are in objecting to this solar farm being built, if you feel strongly about it then you should get organised and do something about it. Get all your objectors together and work out a plan, here in the Somerset village of Aller, the villagers went through all the paperwork with a fine tooth comb as there were lots of discrepancies, it helped that they had a retired solicitor living there. They then got together and worked out who was going to say what at the District Council meeting, they pointed out the historical interest, the effect it would have on tourism, the wildlife life and birds, the actual visual impact 69 acres of solar panels would have on the surrounding area, also the legacy that we are leaving to future generations, as these panels are only supposed to last 25 years, and lets face nobody really knows what the land is going to be like after that, they can only guess at it at the moment. The loss to bird life is tremendous as they land on these panels thinking they are water, despite what they say the panels and not high enough for cows to graze under and sheep get stuck! At our district council meeting, people are allowed 3 minutes to put their point of view, there were about 10 residents of Aller speaking against it all having something different to say not just “I don’t want to see these panels out of my kitchen window” type thing. If you have conservationists against the farm get them to speak up.

    Like your solar panel farm the only benefits from building one at Aller was to the farmer and the developer, remember it isn’t only the panels it is everything else that comes with it! We were lucky in the fact that planning permission to the one in Aller was rejected, but they have 6 months to appeal, so a bit of respite, but the people of Aller can’t properly relax yet.

    I wish you luck.

  9. G Stanhope says:

    Really pleased to be able to say that the proposed solar farm at Stockton on Teme in Worcestershire was refused by the planning committee with a 10 to 2 vote in favour of refusal last month, Such a relief to hear the planning committee Councillors voicing their concern about the harm which would be done to the beautiful Teme valley views. No doubt it is too early get to say the application is dead as no doubt the applicant will be going to appeal The local Say No group must continue the fight!

  10. G Stanhope says:

    Gail Says
    Saddened to say that Renewable Power Exchange have come back with a new planning application for the Stockton-on-Teme solar Farm site. This is the same site that was refused in March 2016. There is now a very small reduction in panel numbers and layout, but it is basically the same application. Local people all still have the same problems with the application. So we have to fight all over again. The Applicant has written within their newly submitted application details, that they are also going to also appeal the refused application. This seems very confusing as we will have to fight the new application and the appeal!

  11. Jane Pursey says:

    I wish you luck Gail,they have left you no alternative but to fight and in my opinion it is very unfair. In the case of Aller Moor, although at the both local and district levels the planning application was dismissed the farmer obviously appealed. That was last September, we were told that early spring we would have a result, we are still waiting! What I object to now, is that people whose lives, homes and living will depend on the outcome and yet they are still waiting, the stress is intolerable, the stress started when some farmer saw a way of making a quick buck nearly 3 years ago. The whole system is wrong and geared up to those who has the money to fight, local villagers don’t,they only want what they have worked and lived for. Whatever the out come for Aller Moor this time will be it, as nobody has the money or expertise to appeal against the appeal. I sincerely hope you obtain the result you are working for Gail.

  12. Jane Pursey says:

    Devastating news this morning, the appeal has decided that the 69 acre solar panel farm at Aller Moor can go ahead. This is after 2 and a half years since the planning application went in. Although the planning was turned down unanimously at parish council and district council level the decision was left to one woman from the appeal panel who came out to look at the site. Personally I don’t think this is a very democratic way of doing things. The decision will have a devastating effect on the area, this is land that is also prone to flooding, but those concerns appear to have gone out of the window , then there is the wildlife, the tourist industry, which in this area we need as many as we can get – they don’t want to look at a load of plastic panels, and also the small village that huge lorries have to get to through narrow lanes, the traffic will affect the small villages around, as well. I firmly believe if subsidies were not in place at the time then the thought of a solar panel farm would not be considered at all. If Save Aller can find a way to continue the fight then they will. But it is having a huge effect on their lives, very sad.

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