Large tracts of Britain’s green and pleasant land are being covered in black glass.
These are solar farms providing much-needed clean energy, but is the climate emergency sufficiently severe to industrialise our countryside?
Drive through the rolling fields outside the university city of Oxford, or better still, walk the ancient footpaths or “green lanes” connecting picturesque Cotswold villages. Much of this farmland is owned by Blenheim Palace and some university colleges. If the landowners get their way, your view for the equivalent of 2,000 football fields will soon become Europe’s biggest solar farm.
No more barley, no grazing cows, no bright yellow fields of rapeseed. Just racks of shiny photovoltaic cells pumping electrons to our toasters and Teslas. The panels are expected to produce enough electricity (850 MW) for all the 870,000 homes in the county of Oxfordshire.
Officials hearing the planning application for Botley West Solar Farm will have to balance the country’s need for clean energy with the obvious drawbacks of producing some of it from the sun.
As with all planning issues, people are divided about the benefits and drawbacks, strongly influenced by how much unwanted change it will bring to their back yards. Local politicians reflect their voters’ views, which has led to a tacit ban in the UK of onshore wind farms and an intense dislike of solar farms among those constituencies facing fields of glass.
Botley West Solar Farm is so big that it is central government (not local authorities) that must give the go-ahead. Its decision-making context is the UK’s commitment to be a net zero producer of greenhouse gases by 2050. It can only get there by broadening the country’s energy mix by adding more renewables, including wind and solar.
PR campaigns for and against solar farms inevitably distort the issues and make it hard to get a balanced view. Here’s a quick (alphabetical) summary of the issues.
Aesthetics. Our view of what the countryside should look like is influenced by farming practices through the centuries that have created tilled fields, grazing land, hedgerows, drystone walls and outcrops of trees. When combined with animals, this landscape is considered green and pleasant. It’s very difficult to find beauty in close-packed black solar panels covering previously farmed fields. There are similar concerns about plastic greenhouses now common on farms, as well as change brought by industrial farming that has removed hedgerows and stone walls to create bigger fields more suitable for large machinery.
Batteries. Climate change has increased the risk of damaging wildfires in the UK’s drier summers. Electricity generated by the panels is channelled to the grid through substations that often contain lithium-ion batteries. Solar farm detractors highlight the potential dangers of intense fires caused by battery malfunctions.
Biodiversity. Photographs on the Botley West website show contented sheep and tall, colourful wildflowers among the photovoltaic panels. Developers argue that solar farms will enhance the biodiversity of the countryside by enabling the growth of plants previously killed by pesticides. This, they say, will encourage more insects providing food for birds nesting in nearby hedgerows. Developers are required to improve biodiversity, or what is called the Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG). But opposers say the issues are far more complex than developers make out, with inadequate space dedicated to wild borders and the amount of shade cast by the racks of solar panels. Measuring BNG is problematic because the metrics are considered inadequate and open to manipulation. Small animals, such as sheep and poultry, may indeed be able to wander through the fields of glass, feeding where the plants grow. But opposers say few animals are found on existing solar farms because of difficulties tending the animals.
Efficiency. Photovoltaic panels are among the least efficient ways to produce electricity, especially in the northern hemisphere. Detractors say a 140-acre solar park (about 106 football fields) will supply electricity to about 9,000 homes while a single wind turbine in the North Sea would power 16,000 homes.
Land use. The crux of the arguments for and against solar farms is about the appropriate use of agricultural land. This is a particularly complex and emotional issue with views influenced by everything from soil science to Brexit and the UK’s heavy dependence on imported food.
During WWII and in its aftermath when Britain was starving, a lot of low-grade land was ploughed up to produce food in the Dig for Victory campaign. Many argue that because Britain imports between 60-80% of its food (the variation depends on how self-sufficiency is measured), the country should increase its food security by tilling more of its soil, not using it to make electricity. The same arguments are used to oppose policies that set aside low-grade land for environmental, conservation and recreation projects, funded by government subsidies.
The reality is that much of the UK’s farmland is poor and needs a lot of fertiliser to produce arable crops. These inputs, derived mainly from fossil fuels, are expensive and damaging to the land and water courses when the fertilizer is washed off the fields during rain. Only lower grade farmland is permitted for solar farms. But because soil quality can vary greatly within a field, campaigners claim that the grading system is manipulated by solar farm developers to work in their favour.
Solar farms have a projected life of 40 years. Solar developers argue this “temporary” use of the land is a long-term benefit, with the land lying fallow and its biodiversity improving over time. Furthermore, panels can be easily removed and the land restored for agriculture. But opposers argue that the land deteriorates because of the large shadow cast by the panels depletes organic matter. Also, they fear land that has deteriorated under solar could later be reclassified as brownfield (post-industrial) and then used for urban development.
Security. Solar farms contain valuable infrastructure that must be secured against theft and large wild animals, such as deer. Often high fences, combined with CCTV, are used to protect solar farms, further industrialising rural areas. Public footpaths used by walkers, can be lost when developers apply to change ancient rights of way.
Waste. Solar farm detractors highlight the fact that solar panels are not recyclable, creating vast amounts of glass and metal that will end up in landfill. The same argument is used against wind farms because turbine blades cannot be recycled.
Those against solar farms in the countryside are quick to point out that their opposition is to the siting of the panels, not the technology. They want the panels used on roofs, lakes and former industrial sites, to keep the British countryside green and pleasant.