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Dorset CPRE is well aware of the climate emergency, the severe impact the Ukraine conflict has had on energy prices, and is fully supportive of renewable energy development.
Rupert Hardy Chair North Dorset CPRE
The government’s recent policy paper, Powering Up Britain, was meant to address our slowness in introducing measures to meet Net Zero, but has so far been criticised for lacking ambition and offering very little new money. The government is still prioritising offshore wind power to supply the majority of our renewable energy needs, but is now aiming also for 70GW of solar ground and rooftop capacity, a fivefold increase by 2035, but it is very unclear how this will be funded or implemented.
There appears too much reliance on pulling in private money. Next year a solar roadmap will be published on how this will be achieved, but we remain concerned that too much focus will be on greenfield solar, which could desecrate our countryside, and not enough on rooftop, where the government has belatedly focused and which we wholeheartedly support.
What can Dorset do, as new offshore wind is less likely to be proposed here and the main contribution will come from solar in Dorset. To combat climate change, Dorset Council (DC) aims to meet a huge renewable energy target of 3.8TWh/yr by 2050, up from current generation of 0.5TWh/yr. Developers will retort that we have plenty of potential sites to build solar farms on, or solar power plants which they really are, and that we should take advantage of the high solar irradiance of the county. However, do not be deceived by the frequently misleading data issued by solar trade associations, whose members are more concerned with profit than saving the planet.
This spring we expect a planning hearing in North Dorset on the 190-acre solar farm developers wish to build at Pulham/Mappowder. We have not objected to a number of less damaging solar farms, but we are opposing this one on grounds of the harm it will do to the setting of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and the beautiful pristine countryside it is tasked with protecting, as well as adverse impact on amenity and flooding risk.
An application for another large solar power plant close to the iconic Horton Tower in East Dorset is imminent, but thankfully a 1400 acre one near Chickerell was recently withdrawn at the proposal stage. More will be coming though. Is this a price worth paying?
Key Factors Affecting Solar Farms
We would argue that it is not a price worth paying and that rooftop solar could provide the same output, although we are supportive of <5MW community-funded solar farms. Key factors that should be considered are:
• Solar farm inefficiency: They are hugely inefficient compared to offshore wind. Solar’s efficiency rating is 11%, compared to 40% for offshore wind.
• Negative impact on landscape quality: Solar farms are mostly power stations that industrialise our beautiful Dorset countryside, loved both by residents and tourists. In particular the AONBs should be protected. Cumulative impact from several solar parks in close proximity will exacerbate the damage, as can be seen from Badbury Rings, an ancient monument.
• Adverse effect on heritage assets and their setting: We have lots of historic churches, houses and ancient monuments which have huge cultural significance for Dorset.
• Loss of good agricultural land and food security: Many solar farms are being built on high grade productive farmland, such as at Spetisbury, which is unforgiveable at this time, with food prices rocketing as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Food security should be paramount. Development should be limited to brownfield sites and poor-quality agricultural land. It can be argued that land graded 3b should not be considered as “poor” as much is productive and often soil here is better able to hold more moisture than higher grades. This was proved in last year’s long hot summer. There was talk last summer of government including 3b in its definition of “Best and Most Versatile” land, but this was squashed by Thérèse Coffey.
• Wildlife and biodiversity: Developers may suggest token gestures such as sheep grazing, but sheep rarely graze under panels, and mostly just on the grass margin. Birds and bat deaths are common as they mistake glass panels for water, while the routes of transitory animals are blocked, forcing them to cross roads.
• Amenity: Most prospective solar farms have footpaths and bridleways crossing them, which are used by residents and visitors alike for enjoying the countryside.
• Permanent or temporary land use? Most solar farms are leased for 30 or 40 years, with a strong likelihood of an extension being applied for. A 40 year period represents two generations relating to a farming tenancy. Land may never revert to agricultural use.
• Tenant farmers ignored: Solar proposal decisions are often taken by landowners against the wishes of their tenants, who farm the land.
• Battery storage: Many solar farms now incorporate this, but lithium-ion batteries present a dangerous fire risk which fire brigades find difficult to deal with.
We would argue that government needs to have a clearer solar policy, which it does not compared to development of land for residential purposes. The proliferation of solar applications across the country makes it imperative that there is clearer guidance on grounds for refusal or acceptance of applications. We would also like stronger local landscape policies in Dorset Council’s emerging Local Plan.
Why do 95% of Households and 98% of Businesses in Dorset Have No Rooftop Solar
Opposition to industrial-sized solar farms in the countryside is growing, as demands for food security and nature recovery are clashing with net zero goals. Promoting rooftop solar makes much more sense as Dorset CPRE have calculated that by installing solar panels on only 64% of currently unutilised buildings, you can reach the maximum government target for 2050 for Solar PV in England of 117.6 TWh, according to the Dynamic Dispatch Team at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, without building another solar farm (search for renewable energy reports on https://dorsetcpre.org.uk). The figure for Dorset would likely be similar.
We ask why 95% of households and 98% of businesses in Dorset had no roof-mounted solar as of December 2021. The answer was first a failure by government and Dorset Council, despite its declared Climate Emergency strategy, to make it mandatory for new housing developments to fit solar panels on every roof. After much badgering it appears Dorset Council is finally looking at ways it can impose new planning conditions on developers. Other local authorities have already done this. Retrofitting older buildings will be expensive, but VAT on domestic solar PV was dropped a year ago.
Another way would be to increase funding of community energy groups, like Purbeck Energy, who facilitate the fitting of solar panels at discounted prices. This would cost much less than subsidising directly millions of home owners, and yet Powering Up Britain has said little on this.
Community Energy Groups
The phasing out of domestic solar panel subsidies in recent years meant that individuals became reluctant installers, despite the drop in prices of panels, while cash-strapped local authorities have been unable to help, but community energy groups sprang up with the goal of offering panels at very competitive rates. It is a growing movement in which energy generation is owned not by large industrial companies but by local communities, with the profits invested back into the community. However last year Community Energy England, in advance of the second reading of the Local Electricity Bill, said that Ministers were failing to respond to growing support for community renewable energy, or properly plan for growth in line with net-zero commitments. Over 300 MPs committed their support to this Bill, which is designed to ensure that Ofgem creates a Right to Local Supply framework, which would help community energy. The Bill appears to be stuck in some Westminster crevice, but the government appears to have other priorities! Despite this, in 2021 Sustainable Swanage and community energy group, Purbeck Energy, launched a project to offer Swanage residents the chance to get solar panels for their properties at competitive rates. They use a company, IDDEA, which has already made over 2,500 installations across southern England. The Swanage Mayor, Mike Bonfield, was fully supportive and praised it as a “brilliant scheme”. How about more Dorset towns encouraging the same? Solar PV on Public, Industrial, and Farm Buildings One of the reasons for slow progress on industrial buildings has been issues of building ownership and leasehold arrangements, complex planning processes, as well as roof weight and warranties.
High energy prices now mean owners of commercial buildings are looking at rooftop solar wherever they can, especially as installing panels on these properties is so much cheaper than for domestic, thanks to scale. The government is at least now consulting on changes to permitted development rights with the aim of simplifying planning processes for large commercial rooftop installations.
Progress is now being made to improve the energy efficiency on public buildings in Dorset too, where ownership is clearer. The first major push came from DC’s Low Carbon Dorset team, who gave grants of £5m to fund 4.1MW of projects, both public sector and business, thanks initially to the European Regional Development Fund.
‘Hazelmead’ is being built on the north-western edge of Bridport. The houses are designed to be affordable, high quality and energy efficient. also given £19m by the government for more renewable projects. This was one of the biggest grant packages given by the government, so well-done DC! It paid for panels to go on the roof of Durlston Castle, the arts centre, County Hall in Dorchester, and various schools. In North Dorset, Blandford and Gillingham Schools are busy installing panels.
Bridport based Dorset Community Energy, which facilitates community ownership of renewable energy production, has financed the installation of panels on twelve schools and four community buildings throughout Dorset, such as Blandford Community Hospital. Thanks initially to the Lottery and many local shareholders it has funded over 1.5MW of panels. We hope to see more of these community-led projects.
DC in its briefing to its Climate and Ecological Emergency Support Group in November spoke of the progress made on decarbonisation of DC properties, including rooftop solar installation. They will be funding now directly most of the Low Carbon Dorset unit, which otherwise was due to close having distributed all the grants given them.
Farmers are fitting panels to their buildings but it is estimated that only a small proportion of farmers so far in Dorset have done so. Weight problems are often quoted as to why less retro-fitting is done but access to the Grid is another.
Mole Energy have been busy promoting the fitting of panels to farm buildings here, but have emphasised the serious Grid capacity issues, which got worse through 2022. They say the rapid phasing out of domestic subsidies in 2016 meant many solar PV installers had to diversify and the associated tradesmen left the industry, so there may be too few installers now too.
Other Solutions in Europe
France announced plans to fast track renewable energy by mandating car parks nation-wide be covered by solar panels – a popular policy that could generate up to 11GW of power. With good planning and design, 20,000 hectares of car parking space in the UK could potentially yield an additional 8GW of solar capacity alongside tens of thousands of new homes. This compares to 14.5GW of solar capacity operational in the UK.
Belatedly the government will now introduce permitted development rights for solar canopies on non-domestic car parks, but this is not the same as mandating it, which would achieve so much more.
We want our government to adopt a renewables strategy that prioritises rooftops, surface car parks and brownfield sites in a concerted effort to attract wide public support. Grid capacity issues need to be resolved too. If implemented quickly, the policy could drastically reduce energy bills during the cost-of-living crisis and speed up the transition to net zero, while leaving as much countryside as possible available for farming and nature restoration. Much hinges on the promised government solar road map. Four urgent national policy changes are needed: • A national land use strategy to balance the competing demands for development, energy and infrastructure, food security and nature recovery; and planning policy amended so that it actively promotes solar panels on agricultural land avoiding the best and most versatile agricultural.
• Solar panels should be mandatory for all new buildings; and planning permission should not be granted for commercial or public car parking spaces unless they also provide solar energy generation.
• Much more needs to be spent on home insulation, compared to the puny amount promised so far.
• The government needs to give more financial support to community energy.
Finally we do not want dozens of solar power plants desecrating our precious countryside land! It is not a price worth paying.
Rupert Hardy Chair North Dorset CPRE