Shock decision will destroy legally protected wildlife site
A decision to build on a legally protected area of lowland acid grassland – one of the largest areas of this flower-rich habitat in England – has been met with disbelief
The council-approved planning application will see a large solar farm built on Rampisham Down in West Dorset – designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Against the advice of the Council planning officers, Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, the planning application by British Solar Renewables to build the solar farm was last night approved by West Dorset District Councillors, despite a suitable alternative site being made available, just across the road.
Much of the 72 hectare (187 acres) Rampisham Down site, which supports an abundance of flowers such as lousewort and eyebright, is now at risk of being destroyed when 100,000 solar panels are installed.We are shocked at the decision to develop this site which has legal protection for its national wildlife significancePaul WilkinsonHead of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts
Paul Wilkinson, Head of Living Landscape for The Wildlife Trusts, said:
“Although The Wildlife Trusts are not opposed to solar farms and renewables in principle, we are shocked at the decision to develop this site which has legal protection for its national wildlife significance. This is one of the largest remaining areas of special acid grassland in lowland England. It is an area which supports a range of wildlife from adders to skylarks and waxcap fungi – and the development will result in extensive damage and habitat loss across a large part of this very special place.
“This is an astonishing decision by West Dorset Council. Rampisham Down is a site of national importance – it is a precious and vital part of our national heritage, ranking alongside the very best of England’s ancient monuments, art treasures and historic buildings.
“The protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions. This Council’s decision goes against the statutory obligations of local authorities to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations. This is simply the wrong place for this development and Rampisham should be protected not destroyed.
Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Chief Executive, Dr Simon Cripps, said:
“With a viable alternative site available, we can’t understand why the council has allowed this important wildlife site to be lost to developers. Dorset Wildlife Trust supports renewable energy, in the right place. These special, legally protected wildlife sites are few and far between and there’s no need to destroy them, especially in this case, when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative site nearby, which we support.”
Paul Wilkinson added:
“The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework is very clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham Down, should not go ahead if suitable alternatives are available. This is a perverse decision which is against national planning policy.”
The Wildlife Trusts will be pressing Government to urgently review this decision. We will be asking the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ‘call in1’ this decision, and for the issues to be examined by an independent inspector.
On 3 March 2014, Natural England confirmed Rampisham Down in Dorset as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its special grassland and heathland habitats. This type of grassland supports adder, skylark and a rich variety of butterflies and other invertebrates.
Located 11 miles North West of Dorchester, Rampisham Down, formerly a BBC World Service transmission station, supports the largest area of lowland acid grassland found in Dorset and is one of the largest areas of its type in the country. The site also supports small stands of lowland heathland and transitional grass and heath plant communities. The large size of this site, which has for the most part escaped any modern-day agricultural improvement, is particularly unusual. The extensive acid grassland is typically dominated by fine grasses, such as common bent, sweet vernal-grass, red and sheep’s-fescue and, more locally, heath-grass; as well as frequent field wood-rush. Characteristic broad-leaved herbaceous plants typical of the unimproved acid grassland include tormentil, heath bedstraw, pignut and birds-foot-trefoil (pictured below). Less frequent, but still present in many areas, are heath milkwort, common dog-violet, mouse-ear-hawkweed and heath speedwell. Of special interest are stands of ‘chalk’ acid grassland with additional grasses, such as quaking and downy oat-grass and herbs of dwarf thistle and ladies bedstraw. More on Natural England’s website is available here.
Development Control (Planning) committee agenda 13 November 2014
The application site extends to approximately 76 hectares and is completely contained within the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The majority of the site was notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on 22 August 2013. The site was acquired by the BBC in 1939 and was one of the main World Service transmission sites until its closure in October 2011. There’s more information on Item 1, page five, point 6 for ‘other representation’ https://www.dorsetforyou.com/416975
1‘Calling-in’ a planning application
‘Calling-in’ of a planning application refers to the power of the Secretary of State to take the decision-making power on a particular planning application out of the hands of the local planning authority for his own determination. This can be done at any time during the planning application process, up to the point at which the local planning authority actually makes the decision. If a planning application is called-in, there will be a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector, or lawyer, who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State can choose to reject these recommendations if he wishes and will take the final decision.
The mitigation hierarchy
Local planning authorities have statutory obligations to consider biodiversity when determining applications. The National Planning Policy Framework is clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham, should not go ahead if alternatives are available. The starting point for any development proposal should be to avoid damage to important wildlife sites and to accept that irreplaceable habitats should not be developed. Next, it is important to ensure that nature is designed into new development in a meaningful way to mitigate damage. Only then – and as a final measure – should any compensation measure be considered, to compensate for damage that cannot be avoided or mitigated. If compensation cannot be achieved because a damaged habitat cannot be created elsewhere, for example, then the development should not go ahead.
Dorset Wildlife Trust
Dorset Wildlife Trust works to champion wildlife and natural places, to engage and inspire people and to promote sustainable living. Founded in 1961, DWT is now the largest voluntary nature conservation organisation in Dorset, with over 25,000 members and 42 nature reserves. Most are open daily and there are visitor centres providing a wealth of wildlife information at the Chesil Beach Centre, Brooklands Farm, Lorton Meadows, Kingcombe Meadows and Brownsea Island Nature Reserves, The Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve and the Urban Wildlife Centre at Upton Heath Nature Reserve. DWT plays a key role in dealing with local environmental issues and leads the way in establishing the practices of sustainable development and engaging new audiences in conservation, particularly in the urban areas. You can find out more at www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk Follow us on twitter @dorsetwildlife and facebook.com/dorsetwildlife
Plush. A small collection of houses set amongst chalk downs in an area dotted with evidence of habitation from medieval, Iron Age and Neolithic times. Field systems (terracing, banks of enclosures) cross dykes, tumuli and sites of settlements can be found on almost every hill in this area.
The downs here reach a height of 260m above sea level; from the highest points one can see Exmoor to the west, the Mendip hills to the north, the Isle of Wight to the east and the ridges above Weymouth in the south. These extensive views in all directions across the whole county probably prompted the name Dorsetshire Gap being given to this crossing of ancient paths.
The trail forms part of the Great Ridgeway, an ancient highway that was once an important trading route between the Devon and Norfolk coasts. Today this ancient highway provides the backbone to several recreational trails through the steep-sided Dorset hills. One constant is prehistory; the trail passes through many ancient hillforts and signs of our ancestors are frequent. It’s not just an ancient trackway but a ridge of high land that has attracted people for thousands of years – a special place to celebrate life and bury their dead.
Experts tell us that this ridge of land is as important as Stonehenge and Avebury for the scale of monuments and what they tell us of life in the past. This vast ceremonial landscape remains one of the UKs best kept secrets!
You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy this ‘land of bone and stone’ – it’s an intriguing mix of wildlife, geology and history all wrapped up in stunning views out across Hardy’s Vale.
The high, dry ground made travel easy and allowed traders to see any approaching attackers. Evidence of the past is visible all along the route. Neolithic causewayed camps and long barrows along with Bronze Age barrows dot the hilltops and magnificent Iron Age hillforts.
Remnants of prehistoric field systems, Roman forts and Medieval settlements and strip lynchets straddling the slopes are visible along the trail. Many of the historical features along the trail have been designated as scheduled monuments, recognising their national importance and preserving them for the future.
NEOLITHIC – EARLY FARMERS From 4300 to 3500 BC, the local people started to adopt more fixed styles of farming and moved away from the hunter-gatherer way of life. Neolithic man started to use stone to make tools and weapons and here in Dorset the local stone was flint. This was used to make arrowheads and tools such as knives and axes. The only surviving evidence along the trail from this time is causewayed camps and long barrows. These are burial mounds surrounded by a ditch and are between 30 metres and 60 metres long. One of the best example is on Hambledon Hill.
BRONZE AGE – ROUND BARROWS AND FIELD SYSTEMS Before the Iron Age, the main surviving evidence of prehistoric man came from their burials and how they farmed. Important people from this time were buried in round barrows placed high up on the hills. You can also see remnants of their prehistoric field systems.
IRON AGE The Iron Age people probably lived in large groups called tribes. The local tribe here in Dorset was known by the Romans as the Durotriges. During the Iron Age, large hillforts constructed of deep ditches and large towering ‘v’ shaped banks called ramparts were built. These still look impressive today, even after 2,000 years of erosion. The purpose of hillforts has long been debated between archaeologists. Suggestions include providing places of safety for people and livestock when under siege from neighbouring settlements or from wolves. The hillforts may have also been a symbol of power for a local chief or used to control important trade routes. There are 27 hillforts in Dorset and seven can be found along the trail.
ROMAN OCCUPATION In 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain so he could expand the Roman Empire. When the Second Legion Augusta led by Vespasian entered the Durotrigian territory, they advanced west building forts like the one on Hod Hill and Waddon Hill to keep the local people under control.
SAXONS After the collapse of the Roman occupation around 410 AD the local population went back to a more rural lifestyle similar to that of the Iron Age. Around 700 AD, the area was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and many settlements and villages were established that are still present today.
MIDDLE AGES During the Middle Ages, farming continued to be one of the most important livelihoods in Dorset. Traces of Medieval farming practices still exist today in the form of strip lynchets. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed. The best examples are around the Dorsetshire Gap and Plush. Medieval drovers probably used the Wessex Ridgeway to move livestock such as geese, sheep and cattle from the West Country to the Home Counties to sell.
This Iron Age hillfort dominates the edge of the hillside as you leave the road near Bulbarrow, the second highest hill in Dorset. This hill has been used for thousands of years, first as a hillfort then as a site for one of the Armada Beacons in 1588. These were used to warn of an impending attack by Spain. Later on this site was used as part of a chain of hilltop telegraph stations running across Dorset during the Napoleonic Wars. Today this site is home to a rough cross that sits within the fort. On your way to the Dorsetshire Gap there is an opportunity to rest and picnic at the large oak bench designed and made by Reg Budd, another Creative Footsteps’ commissioned artist.
This mysterious junction of five tracks with its steep man-made cuttings lies at the edge of the Higher Melcombe estate. The Dorsetshire Gap has been an important road crossing since the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century. All around this site there is evidence from before this time from hilltop cross dykes, burial mounds and traces of an unfinished Iron Age hillfort at Nettlecombe Tout to the remnants of a Medieval settlement in the valley below. For many years visitors to the Dorsetshire Gap have been putting their thoughts on paper in a visitor’s book kept at the Gap. The book can be found hidden in the base of the information panel where the five trackways join.
MELCOMBE PARK – DEER PARK? Just north of the trail lies Melcombe Park. This woodland is believed to be a deer park whose boundary follows the trail from Breach Wood to the Dorsetshire Gap. The deer park dates from around 1580 and was built by Sir John Horsey. However deer parks date broadly from the Medieval period and were areas of woodland and open grassland that were enclosed by a ditch and bank to keep deer in. This was very much a status symbol for the aristocracy. Although many are unused today, evidence of these deer parks is still visible all along the trail.
FOLLY In the past this private house was once the Folly Inn, used as a resting place for Medieval drovers when moving animals along the network of old drove roads, including the Wessex Ridgeway.
High above Plush beside the trail are surviving traces of small rectangular fields, which are part of a prehistoric (pre 43 AD) field system. These once covered large parts of southern England but are now only visible in places that survived ploughing during the Medieval period. There is also a square Celtic encampment visible near the edge of Watcombe Wood.
Strip lynchets dating from Medieval times straddle the hillsides around Plush and Lyscombe Farm. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed. You can visit the village of Plush and the Brace of Pheasants pub by taking the bridleway that runs down through the valley from the trail just above Alton Pancras.
Some have suggested that the proposed solar site is “species poor”. However, the Preliminary Ecology Assessment undertaken by the developers of the solar power plant make it very clear that the site and the area surrounding it are ‘species rich’.
The fields in the Vale certainly should not not to be confused with the ‘hedgeless prairie’ fields so loved by some industrial farms
Around the site of the proposed industrial solar power plant, the southern area of the Blackmore Vale is drained by the Upper Lydden River, joined by the Wonston Brook. The Lydden then meanders toward the river Stour. The area is richly biodiverse.
The landscape is comprised of rolling vales at the foot of the North Dorset Escarpment, as well as some more open areas that are similar in character to the wider Blackmore Vale, to the north. The area is a traditional, largely undeveloped pastoral clay vale. The visual character is dominated by the escarpment and presents consistent patterns of trimmed hedgerows and hedgerow oaks set around regular enclosures. There are a number of small nucleated settlements, which are scattered, but generally concentrated within the eastern portion of the character area. Isolated farms and agricultural buildings add to the sense of rural tranquillity and character. Narrow belts of stream side vegetation and species rich winding rural lanes add to ecological interest.
Key characteristics and special qualities
A combination of rolling vale and broader bowl-shaped vale landscapes occupied by a predominantly pastoral appearance based on clay
Irregular small-scale pastoral fields toward the foot of the escarpment, with larger scale and sometimes arable fields within the broader and more open areas of the character area.
Sunken, winding rural lanes with diverse hedgerows and steep species rich verges
Scattered, isolated farmsteads
Settlement pattern of historic and predominantly nucleated villages, exhibiting a variety of vernacular building materials and thatch. There is a concentration of larger villages within the eastern portion of the area
The area has retained a peaceful, tranquil and undeveloped rural character with dark night skies and wide horizons
Meadows of neutral and unimproved grassland
Numerous woodlands, often being of relatively small-scale toward the foot of the escarpment
Some Councillors have suggested that the proposed farm site is “species poor”. However, the Preliminary Ecology Assessment undertaken by the developers of the proposed solar power plant make it very clear that the site and the area surrounding it are ‘species rich’.
The Blackmore Vale is not a species poor monoculture prairie. Its fields are interconnected by species diverse hedgerows, small woods and species rich verges.
It seems madness for the developers to suggest that this ‘species rich’ environment can be “significantly improved” by covering 188 acres with a monoculture of grass, then shading 151 acres of it from the the sun for 35 years!
And on a related subject:
SIX PROBLEMS WITH MONOCULTURE FARMING
Permaculture gardening promotes biodiversity. It seeks to maximize the number of productive species of plant within a plot, not only to offer the gardener a diverse and vibrant number of crops to harvest for the kitchen, but also so that the ecosystem is itself is strong, with different plants performing different functions so that all can thrive. Permaculture design seeks to avoid any one thing – be it a species of insect, a ground cover plant or an extreme weather event – becoming too influential on a site, to the detriment of the other valuable parts of the ecosystem.
In contrast, much modern agricultural production is based on the opposite premise – cultivating monocultures. Think of vast fields of wheat or barley, plantations of a single species of fruit tree, or furrowed fields of a single vegetable crop. Modern commercial agriculture often seeks to increase yield – and so profits – by cultivating a single type of plant. The theory is that the farmer need only provide for the needs of a single species, with its individual characteristics, in order to grow a successful crop. And the economy of scale allowed by cultivating a single crop (by, for instance, requiring a single automated harvesting method) boosts profits for the farmer.
However, monoculture agriculture has significant negative impacts, impacts that must be alleviated if the ecological systems of the earth are not to be irreversibly damaged.
Eliminates Biological Controls The lack of diversity in a monoculture system eliminates all the functions that nature provides to plants and the soil. It means that there is no range of insect species in a location to ensure that a single population does not get too large and damage too many plants. It means that there are no varieties of plant that naturally provide nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes, or ground cover crops that can be slashed and left to improve the nutrient content of the topsoil. It means that there are fewer species of microorganism and bacteria on the soil as there are fewer nutrients available for them to survive on, and it undermines the integrity of the soil by not having a variety of plants with different root depths.
More Synthetic Material Use Having eliminated the natural checks and balances that a diverse ecosystem provides, monoculture production has to find ways to replicate some of them in order to protect the crop (and the profits from it). This inevitably means the use of large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers.
In attempting to prevent damage to crops by weeds, insects and bacteria; and to provide sufficient nutrients in the soil for the plants to grow, farmers use synthetic chemicals. Not only do these chemicals leave traces on plants that are intended for human consumption and so can enter the food chain, they are also routinely over-used so that a large proportion of the synthetic material remains in the soil, even after the crop has been harvested.
Because of its inorganic nature, this material is not processed into organic matter by microorganisms. Rather it leaches through the soil, eventually polluting groundwater supplies, having the knock-on effect of altering ecosystems that may be at great distance from the original location where the chemicals were used. For instance, inorganic fertilizer runoff has contributed greatly to algal blooms in oceans and lakes, the growth of which starves water bodies and the organisms that live in them, of oxygen.
Furthermore, such chemical substances kill indiscriminately, meaning that all manner of wildlife, beneficial insects and native plants are affected by their use, depleting the vibrancy and diversity of neighboring ecosystems as well.
Changing Organism Resistance Nature is, however, adaptable, and organisms are evolving resistance to these artificial insecticides and herbicides. Of course, the farmers want to continue to protect their crops, so new inorganic methods are continually being developed to combat the ‘threat’. More and more chemicals are being applied to monoculture crops and, in turn, affecting natural ecosystems detrimentally.
Soil Degradation Besides the negative impact the overuse of chemical fertilizers has on the soil, monocultures are detrimental to soil health in other ways. Ground cover crops are eliminated, meaning there is no natural protection for the soil from erosion by wind and rain. No plants provide leaf litter mulch to replenish the topsoil, which would be eroded anyway. All of this combines to continually degrade the soil, often meaning that it becomes useable for agriculture. In some countries this means that forests are then cleared to provide new agricultural land, starting the damaging cycle all over again.
Water Use With no ground cover plants to help improve moisture retention in the soil, and the tendency for land planted with a monoculture to lack monoculture farming topsoil, which serves to increase rain runoff, modern monoculture agriculture requires huge amounts of water to irrigate the crops. This means water is being pumped from lakes, rivers and reservoirs at great rates, depleting this natural resource and affecting those aquatic ecosystems. This is on top of the pollution of water sources by agricultural chemicals.
Fossil Fuels Due to their scale, many modern monoculture farms are more akin to factories than traditional farms. Harvesting is generally performed by machines while, because the crop is intended for sale beyond the local area – sometimes nationally or even internationally – it requires large inputs of energy to sort, pack and transport it. These functions – along with the manufacture of packaging itself – use fossil fuel energy. In combination with the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the industrialized mode of food production is a major contributor to climate change. It is also an incredibly inefficient way of using energy to produce food, taking an estimated 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just a single calorie of food energy.
At its simplest level, monoculture agriculture means a system that works against nature. Permaculture, however, seeks to work in harmony with nature. By putting permaculture practices in place, we can help to combat the harmful effects modern monoculture agriculture has on the planet.
Field margins can provide and enhance wildlife habitats across arable farms without changing cropping patterns.
Source: UK Agriculture Departments, Cereal Field Margin Habitat Action Plan (1998)
The UK biodiversity action plan has set targets for the maintenance, restoration and improvement of 15 000 ha of cereal field margins by the year 2010. This is broken down thus:
12 725 ha in England
2 025 ha in Scotland
250 ha in Wales
It has been estimated that the area of cereal field margins now exceed 21,000 ha (Figure from UKBAP in 2002). This is thought to be mainly as a result of uptake through agri-environment schemes.
The Countryside Survey 1990 (Barr et al., 1993) demonstrated the importance of field margins as refuge for botanical diversity in lowland agricultural landscapes. A series of studies have also demonstrated the importance of field margins as over-wintering sites for a wide range of invertebrates. Whilst the idea of field margins as corridors for animal and plant movement between habitats has only been clearly demonstrated for forest beetles, these landscape elements are used by a wide range of birds, mammals and insects and are important for plants. Pipistrelle bats are almost always found foraging close to hedges and treelines in the Netherlands (Verboom & Huitema, 1997). Studies on weed seed banks in arable fields have demonstrated that the field edge has the most diverse and abundant seed bank. Thus, the conservation of rare cornfield flowers is likely to be most successful at the field edge.
The role of field margins
Field margins exist in the landscape as they have, or had in the past, true agricultural functions. In stock farming areas, hedges and walls were maintained to keep stock in or out. In arable land, field margins delineate the field edge and land ownership. In more recent time, a series of subsidiary roles have been identified, reflecting agricultural, environmental, conservation and cultural or historical interests.
Traditional agricultural landscapes showing field boundaries
Original roles and requirements:
To define the field edge
To be stock- or trespasser-proof, to keep animals in or out
To provide shelter for stock
To provide shelter for crops, particularly as windbreaks
To reduce soil erosion by wind or water
Not to compete with the crop for light, moisture or nutrients
Not to harbour weeds, pests and diseases
To harbour beneficial plants and animals
To act as a refuge or corridor for wildlife
To provide a source of fruits and wood
Current and potential functions of field margins:
Promotion of ecological stability in crops
Reducing pesticide use:
Exploiting pest predators and parasitoids
Enhancing crop pollinator populations
Reducing weed ingress and herbicide use
Buffering pesticide drift
Reducing fertiliser and other pollutant movement, especially in run-off
Reducing soil erosion
Promotion of biodiversity and farm wildlife conservation
Maintaining landscape diversity
Promotion of game species
Encouragement of “countryside” enterprises
Maintenance of historical features, heritage and ‘sense of place’
As linear features, field margins are also thought to act as corridors for the movement of fauna and possibly flora. Evidence for this has been shown for carabid beetles of forest and woodland in Brittany (Burel, 1989). Further, it is known that bats utilise margins to fly along as part of their feeding behaviour (Verboom & Huitema, 1997). Field margins are also known to be important over-wintering habitat for many insects that move into adjacent arable crops (Sotherton, 1984; Thomas et al., 1994; Wratten, 1988). However, it has also been shown that field margins can be barriers to the movement of such species between fields. Initiatives over recent years have been taken to modify the management of arable field margins for a series of different objectives, often with the aim of enhancing wildlife while providing agronomic benefits, in terms of reduced weed ingress or enhanced populations of beneficial invertebrates. These have been widely investigated, with modifications, across Europe.
The terminology used here follows that of (Greaves & Marshall, 1987), in which the term field margin includes any pre-existing boundary structure, such as a hedge, a boundary strip and the crop edge, where conservation headlands are located. The diversity of conservation management approaches for field margins can be best summarised as follows:
Boundary Strips: Grass strip
Grass and wild flower strip
Sterile strip: just cultivated
Uncropped wildlife strip
Sown wildlife mixtures (strips or blocks)
Crop edge: Conservation headland
Across fields: Beetle bank
Within these main approaches, variations are available. For example, within a grass margin, the area nearest the hedge may be managed for tussocky grasses to provide nesting cover for gamebirds and over-wintering habitat for beetles and other invertebrates.
Specific options related to field margins aim to increase:
Field margin strips
Uncropped wildlife strips
The flora and fauna associated with these areas.
Existing field boundary structures, including hedges, walls, grass banks and ditches, comprise a major part of the semi-natural habitat mosaic of farmland. Many of these have been degraded or lost. A variety of methods of extending and recreating margin habitats are available, many of which buffer adjacent habitat from disturbance from farming operations. Grass margins and beetle banks provide nesting areas for grey partridge in tussocky grass and for skylark in shorter grass. They also provide habitat for insects and small mammals, feeding areas for owls and other birds of prey and over-wintering habitat for many invertebrates. Common flowers can be important sources of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects. Uncropped wildlife strips at arable field edges provide conditions for rare arable weeds to germinate and set seed. The seeds produced will in turn provide forage for a range of bird species. Fields that been under intensive arable cultivation for many years are likely to have impoverished seed banks. However, the seed banks are larger and more diverse at the field edge. Thus, wildlife strips at the field edge are more likely to promote rare annuals than in the field centre. Nevertheless, targeting fields known to support rare annual flowers is to be recommended. Fields that have not been in arable production for long are unlikely to support a seedbank of rare annual plants.
Uncultivated areas adjacent to water courses with a wide range of shrubs and trees not only create valuable habitats but act as a sink for leached nutrients and pesticides
Extending grass margins at arable field edges results in farming operations, particularly pesticide and fertiliser applications, taking place further from pre-existing habitat. This in itself provides some protection from drift. Grass margin strips can act as buffer strips when sited next to watercourses. Margin vegetation may act as a physical buffer to drift and to surface movement of water from fields. This may reduce the movement of nitrogen, phosphorous, pesticide and silt into surface waters, fulfilling requirements under the Codes of Good Agricultural Practice. Placement of beetle banks strategically across large fields with areas prone to soil erosion can reduce soil losses by reducing overland flows.
Wide margin strips may provide easy access for hedge trimming in late winter, after berries have been eaten, without damage to adjacent arable crops. Strips are also one way of satisfying the requirement not to apply an increasing range of pesticides within 6 m of watercourses. Nevertheless, wide strips in small fields may have significant impacts on the working area within fields. Where annual weeds dominate the field boundary, notably barren brome and cleavers, creation of a perennial grassy margin can form a barrier to weed spread into the adjacent arable crop. Over time, reduced disturbance will also enhance perennials in the boundary, reducing annual weed populations. Provision of semi-natural habitat for beetles, spiders, bees and hoverflies will enhance their populations. Many of these species are beneficial to adjacent arable crops, either as pollinators or as predators of crop pests. Some hoverfly species, for example, require pollen and nectar to feed on as adults, before seeking out colonies of aphids in which to lay their eggs. The emerging hoverfly larvae are voracious aphid predators. Set-aside regulations allow margin strips to be included. Such strips may be for rotational set-aside and moved from field to field, or for non-rotational set-aside. In all cases, the width of set-aside margins has to be 20 m wide, under current EU regulations.
Agricultural soils are often highly fertile. High fertility promotes tall, fast-growing plant species at the expense of shorter species, resulting in low species diversity (Marrs, 1993)..Where tall, tussocky vegetation is necessary for the nesting of grey partridge, little management may be required. Where a shorter, more diverse perennial plant community is required, particularly with grass margins adjacent to arable crops, management should aim to reduce fertility or the height of perennial vegetation. However, care needs to be taken to avoid disturbance during the breeding season, particularly of ground-nesting birds.
Management of features in the above diagram (as suggested by the Game Conservancy Council:
Trim every other year
Keep to maximum height of 2m
Do not allow to overgrow adjacent grassy strip
Grassy bank/nesting strip
The area used for nest sites by game birds and for over wintering of beneficial insects:
At least 1m wide and preferably sited on a bank
Composed of perennial grasses and other non weedy herbaceous species
Avoid spray and fertilizer drift into this area
Allow build up of dead grass material (essential for successful nesting)
Top the vegetation every 2 – 3 years to avoid scrub encroachment
The purpose is to prevent invasion of crop by barren brome and cleavers where they have become abundant. This area is not essential for conservation purposes but is for crop protection and weed management:
Drill crop further out into field to leave area of bare uncultivated land
At least 1m wide
Maintain by rotavation and herbicides (i.e. atrazine) in February/early March
Do not spray out grassy bank
Avoid spray drift by using nozzle shielded down to ground level
The area between the crop edge and first tramline:
Usually 6m wide, depending on sprayer boom width
Treated with selective pesticides only to control grass weeds, cleavers and diseases whilst allowing broad leaved weeds and beneficial insects to survive
Ploughing of headlands is recommended especially on heavy soils or where grass weeds are a problem
Avoid turning furrow on to grassy strip as this area can create ideal conditions for annual weeds
Choose headlands next to good nesting cover
Avoid headlands infested with difficult weeds (particularly barren brome and cleavers)
Treat as normal
Avoid drift onto conservation headland
Use only ‘safer aphicides’
Pause for thought……..Would conservation headlands be viable on small farms with small field sizes, or would the economic losses be too great?
Left: Arable monoculture, Right sheep grazing amongst relatively new trees
A grassy strip across a field (beetle bank) can provide new habitat for birds, small mammals and invertebrates. The width of the beetle bank should be 2 to 3 m wide and about 0.4 m high ideally. A 3 m strip may be created in the first year and reduced to 2 m subsequently. The technique is used to create semi-natural habitat within large fields, dividing large blocks into smaller areas with a new field margin. This can have agricultural benefits in enhancing beneficial insect populations, as well as wildlife benefits in providing new feeding and breeding habitat.
By careful location across slopes, beetle banks can reduce within-field erosion. Although originally designed as temporary features within fields, beetle banks can provide better habitat structure, if connected to and connecting other semi-natural habitats. Connections between woods or hedges should be encouraged.
The beetle bank may connect to existing field edges or have gaps up to 25 m wide at either end to allow machinery access. Combination with conservation headlands either side of a beetle bank is likely to enhance wildlife benefits:
Provide a method of recreating a linear margin habitat across fields
Provide nesting areas for grey partridge in tussocky grass and possibly for skylark in shorter grass
Provide habitat for insects and small mammals, feeding areas for owls and other birds of prey and over-wintering habitat for many invertebrates. Many of these species are beneficial to adjacent arable crops, either as pollinators or as predators of crop pests. Some hoverfly species, for example, require pollen and nectar to feed on as adults, before seeking out colonies of aphids in which to lay their eggs. The emerging hoverfly larvae are voracious aphid predators
Common flowers can be important sources of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects
In combination with conservation headlands either side of a beetle bank, wildlife benefits are likely to be enhance
Placement of beetle banks strategically across large fields with areas prone to soil erosion can reduce soil losses by reducing overland flows
This may reduce the movement of nitrogen, phosphorous, pesticide and silt into surface waters, fulfilling requirements under the Codes of Good Agricultural Practice
The effect of introducing a beetle banks across a field, may be to change the machinery working patterns within the field. This may have practical consequences for the farmer, in terms of direction of work, timing and efficiency.
We need more space for nature, we need more space for our health and wellbeing and we need to engage in natural solutions to combat climate change. Rewilding degraded land provides all of this. We support Dorset Wildlife Trust in their work to instigate, promote and collaborate rewilding projects in Dorset; for nature, for the climate and for us.
Rewilding land helps remove damaging and polluting management practices, which in turn provides cleaner water, cleaner rivers and seas, space for nature to flourish and return and space for communities to once again re-engage with the natural world. More bio-diversity means more carbon is locked away, combating climate change and the potential for alternative uses of land provides opportunities for local jobs.
In our race to save the climate, a new book claims that we are destroying the environment and starting a new war over natural resources
Green” energy is centre stage when it comes to Government plans to achieve their “net zero” mandated target. For the UK the heading “renewables” really means intermittent solar or wind, but very little attention is paid to the manufacture, installation, life expectancy or recycling problems…the complete life cycle cost/benefit analysis does not appear to be an integral part of the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) recommendations to the Government.
It is a compelling vision: by 2050, this island nation will no longer contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. It will grace the globe leaving no imprint, no carbon trail to threaten future generations, merely kissing the surface of the silver sea.
Not that we residents will be energy starved, husbanding our watts like misers, parcelling out energy as if on wartime ration cards, shivering physically and shrivelling economically and politically.
No. Two months ago, Boris Johnson set out how we can have our cake and eat it, consuming at full tilt as, over the next three decades, a green industrial revolution powers us forward with clean energy and clean consciences. ‘We will harness Mother Nature,’ he said. ‘Green and growth can go hand-in-hand.’
Like Johnson, Biden has promised a green energy revolution, though on a far grander scale. While Britain pledges £12 billion of government investment, Biden’s plan is to spend £1.5 trillion ($2 trillion).
If Biden sticks to his plan, renewables – including wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower – could become the world’s biggest source of electricity by next year, according to Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency.
Gas boilers could be banned in newly built UK homes from 2023, making way for hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. Petrol and diesel cars will begin to disappear until sales of them, too, are banned, in 2030.
The PM paints a picture of Britons cooking ‘your breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner, and the trucks and trains, ships and planes are running on hydrogen or a synthetic fuel.’
It is a smorgasbord of options to help us generate, store and consume energy in cleaner, more efficient ways. And it’s not impossible.
The UK renewables race
The UK is already doing well on renewables. Latest figures show that in 2020 they collectively generated around 45 per cent of our electricity, up nine per cent on 2019. If the dream of going carbon neutral is truly to be realised, however, Britain will need to plug the remaining gap, and there is one obvious way to do that.
Our island makes us singularly well placed to capitalise on a wind boom offshore, where gusts are strong and regular, and NIMBYs less likely to complain. Already the UK is a global leader, with about a third of the globe’s 29GW (gigawatt) offshore capacity. And we are building more fast. The plan is to quadruple our production by 2030.
If completed, it will represent a remarkable endeavour, as we will need not only anchored, shallow-water turbines but giant, deep-water floating platforms, too. The turbines themselves will be vast.
Currently the most powerful offshore turbine in the world is GE’s Haliade-X, which can power a house for two days with a single rotation of its blade – it stands 260 metres tall, two-and-a-half times the size of Big Ben. Installation of the first Haliade-X field in the world, comprising 190 turbines, will begin in 2023 on Dogger Bank off the Yorkshire coast.
Atop these vast machines, behind the rotors, is a giant ‘nacelle’, which houses all of the components required to generate the electricity. On the Haliade-X, this nacelle is 11 metres wide and contains the generator, known as a PMG. The ‘M’ stands for magnet. A vast magnet.
And it is here, at the pinnacle of a technology that promises to liberate us from pollution and the pressure of poisoning the planet, that the clean green dream begins to tarnish. For offshore turbines typically use no ordinary magnets.
Firstly, they are enormous in size – the Haliade-X turbine requires seven tonnes of permanent magnets, says Paul Atherley, chairman of Pensana, a British mining company.
Most offshore turbine magnets weigh about 650kg for every MW (megawatt) of power they generate. And for most, about a third of the magnet is composed of materials with exotic names like neodymium and dysprosium, from a group of metals known as rare earths.
And while rare earths are not rare, they can be very, very dirty. Yet they are very special too.
The benefits of rare earths
‘They have such amazing properties,’ says Guillaume Pitron, a French journalist and documentary-maker who reports on the global commodities trade, and has now written a book, The Rare Metals War. ‘Magnetic, catalytic, optical. You cannot do the green energy revolution without them.’
In wind turbines it is the magnetic power of rare earths that is prized. ‘They are seven to 10 times more powerful’ than standard magnets, says Pitron, dramatically increasing electricity generation. But rare earths aren’t critical only to turbines.
Their unique properties are vital in solar panels, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, energy- efficient light bulbs – as well as a vast array of hitech products unrelated to green energy, including smartphones, camera lenses and missile defence systems – plus they power the motors in electric cars. Such magnet motors are ‘incredibly powerful for their weight,’ says Atherley. ‘It’s why the [electric] Porsche Taycan can accelerate 0 to 60 faster than Lewis Hamilton’s F1 McLaren Mercedes.’
Indeed many forms of green energy are dependent on these rare earths, along with 20 or so cousins called ‘rare metals’ or ‘critical raw materials’.
Though known as ‘rare’, scarcity is not an issue, as they are about as abundant as silver, and found around the world, including in Britain, says Andrew Bloodworth of the British Geological Survey. The problem arises, however, in getting them out of the ground.
Excavating rare earths
As these rare elements are distributed in tiny quantities, vast piles of ore need to be dug up, processed and refined to produce minuscule amounts. For a single kilo of gallium – used in energy-efficient light bulbs – 50 tonnes of rock needs to be excavated, according to Pitron.
Much of this rare earth excavation happens in Baotou, a large city in China’s autonomous province of Inner Mongolia; its population has swollen from under 100,000 to more than 2.5 million as the city has become the epicentre of the globe’s rare metal dependence. China supplies around 98 per cent of these critical resources to Europe, and Baotou has paid the price.
North of the city are the Bayan Obo mines where ore is dug up, to its west are the refineries and alongside, a vast artificial tailings lake, black and sludgy: ‘Ten square kilometres of toxic effluent,’ as Pitron puts it. For Atherley, who has spent his career in mining, Baotou is ‘a horrible environmental disaster’.
‘There’s no getting away from the fact that we need to reduce the environmental footprint of rare-earth extraction,’ says Bloodworth. Especially because, as he concedes, they are irreplaceable. ‘Nothing else performs as well as they do.’
There are obvious solutions. We could consume less. But the green revolution is just beginning. ‘This is the biggest energy transition in history,’ says Atherley. Bloodworth agrees. ‘We’re going to be increasingly reliant on renewable technologies,’ he says. ‘There’s no doubt we’re going to need a lot more rare earths in the future.’ Pitron says growth of demand ‘is exponential’, with consumption for various metals increasing five-, nine- or 20-fold in the next few years.
Reusing rare earths
‘The big one that everyone wants to do is recycle these things [rare earths] more,’ says Bloodworth. But that is extremely hard, precisely because they are so magnetic. And they are often used in tiny quantities, combined with other materials. ‘It’s hard to separate.’ Consequently, current recycling rates are pitiful, writes Pitron: ‘It would be a stunning achievement for manufacturers to one day be able to recycle just 10 percent of rare-earth metals.’
Many renewables are, it turns out, particularly difficult to renew themselves. ‘We tend to think of solar panels as clean, but the truth is that there is no adequate plan to deal with solar panels at the end of their 20- or 25-year life,’ notes Michael Shellenberger, author of Apocalypse Never. ‘In the effort to try to save the climate, are we destroying the environment?’
Extraction and recycling are just two of several problems with renewables, says Shellenberger. Threat to wildlife is also an issue – and not only a result of mining. As solar farms need to be extremely large, building them can involve displacing animals; wind farms threaten birds, in particular, says Shellenberger, ‘big, slow-to-reproduce birds: kites, raptors, eagles and hawks and owls’.
Another downside is reliability or, in the jargon, ‘intermittency’ – wind power can only be generated when it’s windy, and solar power when it’s sunny. A recent McKinsey report detailed how Germany’s increasing reliance on solar almost led to blackouts in June 2019. When largely nuclear France tried to integrate a lot of wind energy on to its grid, says Shellenberger, it had to expand fossil fuel provision as a backup. ‘The result was actually an increase in carbon emissions.
‘Renewables are just not what people think they are. People think that they harmonise society with the natural world but that’s fantasy. Renewables can’t save the planet, are we going to keep letting them destroy it?’
The high environmental price of rare earths would seem prohibitive for Britain – yet British companies are interested in onshoring parts of this currently dirty process, including Pensana, which recently announced a processing site outside Hull to produce a ‘sustainable rare earths supply chain’ from ore mined in Angola.
‘The processes we’re using are super-clean, different to those elsewhere in the world, notably China,’ insists Atherley. There is, of course, also a strategic element to securing new supply lines beyond China. ‘The North Sea power hub… is going to be six times bigger than China’s Three Gorges Dam. The biggest energy installation on the planet ever,’ he continues. ‘You can’t have that reliant on just one country.’
The new oil war?
Annual trade of rare earths is currently a mere $6.5 billion – some 276 times less valuable than oil, says Pitron. However, they are beginning to assume black gold’s geopolitical significance. ‘We have to get them, but how are we going to secure them?’ he asks. ‘Which countries will become the new Saudi Arabias of rare metals? Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia, China, Kazakhstan will try to gain influence because they have these resources we need. And we’re going to be competing with other countries for access, which will bring tensions. There is a risk that all the conflict around oil access in the 20th century will repeat itself over this “new oil”.’
Last September, the EU announced an Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials. Commissioner Thierry Breton talked of ‘strategic autonomy’ by ‘forging alliances’ with Canada and Australia – both known to have reserves of rare earths – and also by digging for the metals in Europe. Though there is no recent history of mining rare earth elements in Europe, deposits have been identified in Greenland and Sweden.
Indeed, sourcing rare earths closer to home will become increasingly important as pressure on companies to change their practices grows. The era of ‘greenwashing’ (using superficial corporate gestures of environmentalism) is over, says Michelle Davies, international head of clean energy and sustainability for global law firm Eversheds Sutherland. ‘The level of scrutiny is going to be far beyond anything that business people have had to experience today.’
As for the argument that it affects wildlife, she says, ‘Don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get one of these projects permitted.’ This hurdle, together with the others associated with green energy, such as recycling and reliability, can be overcome, she says. ‘It’s not a deal-breaker for renewables.’
After all, extraction of anything has an environmental cost. ‘The world produces about a billion tonnes of iron and steel every year,’ points out Andrew Bloodworth. ‘It produces about 200,000 tonnes of rare earth [ore].’ Volume alone dictates that ‘the environmental impact of the production of those big industrial metals is far, far greater’.
Pound for pound, however, rare earths are vastly more intensive to extract and refine. To Shellenberger that, in combination with renewables’ unreliable, diffuse power, makes the entire green-energy revolution – Boris’s billions and Biden’s trillions – a vast mistake.
‘Renewables are going to have to fail, and they will fail spectacularly everywhere over the next several years, before we discover that really there’s no alternative, in terms of climate change, to doing a lot of nuclear.’
Pitron is not so sure. ‘I am not against green energy,’ he says. But he is concerned that we are escaping one trap merely to fall into another. ‘We will have so many environmental impacts to get these metals. Bigger mines, deeper mines, even in the oceans. We are moving into a situation where, in 20 years, the cost of green technologies will actually be superior to the benefits. It’s crazy.’
“Green” energy is centre stage when it comes to Government plans to achieve their “net zero” mandated target. For the UK the heading “renewables” really means intermittent solar or wind, but very little attention is paid to the manufacture, installation, life expectancy or recycling problems…the complete life cycle cost/benefit analysis does not appear to be an integral part of the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) recommendations to the Government. Below is a very brief summary of some of the key points in the manufacture of solar panels. According to the latest data, 8 out of 10 solar panels are now made in China and there are serious concerns about the working conditions, and the impact on the health of those involved….this is also discounted in the drive towards “green” energy.
THE MANUFACTURE OF PHOTOVOLTAIC PANELS
To understand exactly what the problems are, and how they might be addressed, it’s helpful to know a little something about how photovoltaic panels are made. While solar energy can be generated using a variety of technologies, the vast majority of solar cells today start as quartz, the most common form of silica (silicon dioxide), which is refined into elemental silicon. There’s the first problem: The quartz is extracted from mines, putting the miners at risk of one of civilization’s oldest occupational hazards, the lung disease silicosis.
The initial refining turns quartz into metallurgical-grade silicon, a substance used mostly to harden steel and other metals. That happens in giant furnaces, and keeping them hot takes a lot of energy, a subject we’ll return to later. Fortunately, the levels of the resulting emissions—mostly carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide—can’t do much harm to the people working at silicon refineries or to the immediate environment.
The next step, however—turning metallurgical-grade silicon into a purer form called polysilicon—creates the very toxic compound silicon tetrachloride. The refinement process involves combining hydrochloric acid with metallurgical-grade silicon to turn it into what are called trichlorosilanes. The trichlorosilanes then react with added hydrogen, producing polysilicon along with liquid silicon tetrachloride—three or four tons of silicon tetrachloride for every ton of polysilicon.
Water is yet another issue. Photovoltaic manufacturers use a lot of it for various purposes, including cooling, chemical processing, and air-pollution control. The biggest water, though, is cleaning during installation and use. Utility-scale projects in the 230- to 550-megawatt range can require up to 1.5 billion litres of water for dust control during construction and another 26 million litres annually for panel washing during operation. However, the amount of water used to produce, install, and operate photovoltaic panels is significantly lower than that needed to cool thermoelectric fossil- and fissile-power plants.
THE BROAD ONE’ Dorset’s little rivers — The Lydden and the Caundle Brook.These two streams flow through the western part of the Blackmore Vale, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’. The Lydden, a stream that is about twelve miles long, rises under the Chalk escarpment near Buckland Newton, then flows northwards to join the Stour about a mile to the south-west of Marnhull, near the now disused King’s Mill. The Caundel Brook is its principal tributary, rising in the shadow of Dogbury Hill, on the other side of the hill from where the Cerne rises near Minterne Magna. It flows north for ten miles before it joins the Lydden about half a mile to the north of Twofords Bridge, which carries the main road from Blandford to Sherborne and Shepton Mallet. The Lydden derives its name from the Celtic language, Lydden simply meaning ‘the broad one’, although for almost the whole of its course it does not seem to merit this description. https://www.dorsetlife.co.uk/…/dorsets-little-rivers…/The image above: The Lydden River and its Food Zones, along with the Wonston Brook, almost surround the proposed solar plant. Maybe that’s why the Celts named it the ‘Broad One’
Regenerative farms spanning four continents, including the Westcountry, have been enlisted to take part in the pilot of a trailblazing new certification scheme. Following the recent reveal of its newest label, Certified Regenerative, non-profit certifier A Greener World (AGW) has selected over 50 farmers to join the programme’s trial phase.
The certification will provide a whole-farm assurance of sustainability – measuring benefits for soil, water, air, biodiversity, infrastructure, animal welfare and social responsibility.
Key features of the programme include transparent, rigorous standards; high animal welfare; a holistic, farmer-led approach; early and broad access to regenerative markets; and a pragmatic, science-based approach.
Building on AGW’s growing family of trusted labels, which includes Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW, Certified Grassfed by AGW and Certified Non-GMO by AGW, the first fully Certified Regenerative by AGW farms and products are expected to be announced later this year.
Wayne Copp, executive director of AGW UK / Europe, said: “The term ‘regenerative’ is already being thrown around like ‘sustainable’ was a decade ago, and is being used to ‘greenwash’ products or make them seem more environmentally sustainable than they are.
“Our new Certified Regenerative by AGW programme seeks to protect farmers and consumers by establishing clear standards and a label that farmers and consumers can trust to deliver a genuinely positive outcome: on the farm, at the table, and for the planet.”
Interest in the Certified Regenerative by AGW programme has been “overwhelming”, added Mr Copp, who farms in Woolacombe, North Devon. “The excellent applications made for a difficult selection process, but we are thrilled with the results.
“We know that truly regenerative farming requires accountability to each other and to all of the communities to which we belong—whether they be plant, animal, human, or the environment we all share. We have been humbled by the groundswell of interest from farmers and eaters alike and look forward to sharing our collective journey.”
The core feature of Certified Regenerative by AGW is a five-year Regenerative Plan developed in partnership with the farmer, whereby farmers and experts assess risk, set goals and track progress toward meaningful milestones. Experienced agricultural advisors at the UK’s Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) will also be providing training and support in the development of regenerative plans.
Mr Copp said the role of AGW is to assess farms’ compliance with their own plan. “Currently most regenerative claims are not verified at all, and the few verified labels are either limited in scope or require Organic certification as a prerequisite, excluding the vast majority of farmland and hardwiring practices which are inherently not regenerative,” he continued.
Pilot farms were selected based on a variety of factors including agricultural experience, regenerative principles, market or educational impact and geographical diversity. With products ranging from grass-fed lamb to herbs and vegetables, the cohort of farms spread throughout the UK, Australia, Namibia, South Africa, Canada and the USA will partner AGW over the coming year to evaluate standards, plans and auditing procedures – allowing the programme to be trialled and assessed in a range of environments, climates and socioeconomic parameters.
Climate change – temperature increases – increase in flash flooding – increased runoff and flooding – from “wet” land. “
Ramping up offshore wind is essential to accelerating the global energy transition, which many energy experts agree on hinges on widescale electrification. Built at sea, offshore wind farms can provide stable green power at utility-scale without taking up precious land area.”
We all recognise the urgent need to switch to renewable energy and move away from fossil fuels. But, like many who care about the Dorset countryside and its cultural heritage, we also believe that photovoltaic panels should be on roofs, and brownfield sites, saving on transmission costs by being near main roads and close to where the generated energy is needed. We should not be covering productive farm fields and harming highly valued Conservation Areas and protected landscapes, especially in the astonishingly beautiful countryside of North Dorset.
The Prime Minister announced (6th October) that, in future, off-shore wind turbines will provide for the green energy needs of all homes in the country. How foolish it would be to trash 188 acres of food productive farmland when the Government has announced this policy change. The solar power station proposal comes at the wrong time – and certainly would be in the wrong place!
The sun is an inexhaustible energy resource to generate electricity apparently without toxic pollutants or effects on global warming. Certainly, solar energy systems (photovoltaics, solar thermal, solar power) offer significant benefits in comparison to the conventional energy sources, but that does not mean they are advantageous in all aspects. Is the photovoltaic energy a clean form of electricity generation with no effect on the environment at all?
As pointed out by the American National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in addition to direct emissions, we must consider renewable technologies from the point of view of the entire lifecycle. In this sense, solar power has significant and multidimensional environmental impacts in the construction, installation and the decommissioning phases.
The production of photovoltaic panels still has an important carbon footprint and creates a series of waste, liquid and gaseous by-products that are harmful to the environment. Firstly, the extraction of quartz, the crystalline form of silicon, and of the other materials necessary for the construction of the panels. Moreover, for the production of metallurgical silicon, huge furnaces, and very high temperatures, with the production of large quantities of carbon dioxide and sulphide, are needed.
Furthermore, the chemical process necessary for obtaining the polycrystalline silicon occurs through a reaction with hydrochloric acid and hydrogen, which leads to the formation of a very high by-product, silicon tetrachloride. It is a by-product but, proportionately, for each part of high-purity silicon produced by the reaction, silicon tetrachloride is from three to four times as much. The most advanced technological processes have reduced the production of toxic substances, for example subsequently reprocessing them for the extraction of other high purity silicon at lower costs, decreasing energy required for the extraction of new raw material.
Although western countries are developing technologies that can reduce the environmental impact of this type of production, most of the panels, assembled today in the West, are produced with more antiquate technologies in areas of the planet known to be less attentive in respecting the environment.
In fact, half of the world production of photovoltaic panels takes place in China. In general, it has been estimated that around six months are needed for a solar panel to produce the energy required to clear the carbon dioxide emitted to produce it. However, this aspect depends mostly on the place of production. In China, for example, much of the energy is generated from fossil fuels, mainly coal, so, the carbon footprint of its electricity production is twice that of the United States. Consequently, also taking into account other factors, such as transport and logistics necessary for export, and the fact that China is its largest global producer, when a panel is installed on a European roof it takes about a year to cancel the carbon footprint necessary to produce it. As a result, when the panel produces clean energy in China the production of greenhouse gases increases. This is why solar energy is clean, but not so much. Also recycling faulty panels, or those at the end of their life, leads to environmental problems.
A solar panel lasts 30 years. At the end of its life cycle, it has to be treated as a special waste. Numerous elements compose a PV panel, including toxic substances such as copper, lead, gallium, selenium, indium, cadmium and tellurium. The separation and recovery of these metals is not an easy process. These substances, potentially hazardous to health, are in small percentage compared to the most non-hazardous, such as glass, polymers, and aluminum.
Since photovoltaics is a relatively new product, today we have to face the first phase of development of the photovoltaic recycling industry, which could convert this waste into a resource. It is not difficult to understand that proper recycling is a precious resource for the production of materials in production chains, photovoltaic panels and more. To do this, it is necessary to disassemble the panel and correctly separate the elements that compose it. In addition, the development of a used panel market could also be interesting, especially in developing countries where purchasing power is limited.
Another adverse effect of solar power is associated with land use. To build a utility-scale solar power facility, a large area of land is required. This can interfere with the existing land uses. The use of many acres of land can result in clearing and grading of land, which can cause soil compaction, erosion, and alteration of drainage channels. Furthermore, solar energy systems can affect the area in the process of materials extraction, exploration, manufacturing, and disposal.
The rising demand for energy and the push towards low-carbon energy sources leads to rapid growth of ground-based photovoltaic parks all over the world. This constitutes an important change in land use on a global scale and requires critical studies for a detailed understanding of the impact of solar parks on the ground below them.
A study of researchers from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology of the University of Lancaster, in Great Britain, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, describes what happens to the soil and vegetation below the solar panels. After monitoring the plants in the large Swindon solar park for about a year, the scientists noticed that, below the panels, the temperature was on average 5 degrees lower than the rest of the surface. This shading effect causes a change in the climate that can damage the growth of some plants. Solar panels undoubtedly affect the earth, shielding the ground from the sun’s rays. However, according to Dr. Alona Armstrong of Lancaster University, the shade under the panels can allow crops that cannot survive in full sun to be cultivated. In addition, water losses can be reduced and water could be collected from large solar panel surfaces and used for crop irrigation.
Although there are no global warming emissions associated with the generation of electricity from solar energy, there is no doubt that there are emissions associated with other phases of the life cycle of a photovoltaic system, including production, transport of materials, installation, maintenance and dismantling, and disposal. As demonstrated by the scientific literature collected by the NREL of the US Department of Energy, the energy invested to produce a photovoltaic system, including components and installation, ranges from 3 to 13% of what the system will produce in 30 years.
If we compare the energy payback ratio, the relation between energy invested and energy produced, with that of other sources, we see that the photovoltaic has an higher performance than, for example, a coal-fired power plant. With the big difference that, in the case of PV, from 87% to 97% of the energy produced by the plant does not involve any emission or pollution.
Any human activity has what is called anthropogenic impacts. Many of which are extremely positive and some are damageable drawbacks. No human activity is environment-neutral. As always, humans have to develop technologies to fix the environmental issues caused by our inventions. Often our latest “solutions” create or add more damage, even if we initially welcome them as the ultimate answer. It keeps us busy, having to solve a continuing series of (mainly) self-inflicted problems. Unless a complete assessment of all costs (including environmental effects) and benefits is performed, better not to trust anyone glorifying a technology that has not fully analysed this balance.