King's Lynn Technologies have installed a new £2m solar array to provide power to its factory. Picture; Matthew Usher.

Fears ‘gold rush’ for solar farms will carve up our beautiful landscape and industrialise it

Thursday, December 13, 2012
12.28 PM

The number of applications to build solar farms on land across the region has increased five-fold, the EDP can reveal today.

The solar ‘gold rush’ has been sparked by an anticipated 25pc cut in government subsidies for large-scale solar farms completed after April 1, 2013.

Seven councils who responded to an EDP survey said the number of applications they have received has increased from three in 2011 to 16 in 2012, with three-quarters set to be decided in the next few weeks.

On Monday, Breckland councillors will consider three separate applications for Litcham, Hardingham and Narford, while Belaugh Parish Council claims villagers are unanimous in their opposition to plans for 57,000 solar panels near the Norfolk Broads in Hoveton. The plans are due to go before North Norfolk and Broadland district councils in the new year.

Broadland, Breckland and Waveney councils said no plans for solar farms were submitted last year, but they have received two, four and five respectively so far this year.

The number in North Norfolk rose from two to five, while South Norfolk said the only recent application it received was last year. Norfolk County and Norwich City councils said they did not receive any applications in either year.

Belaugh parish meeting is opposing the Hoveton application, and chairman Norman Evans said: “We have a beautiful, glorious, historic open countryside. If these schemes are approved they will carve up our landscape and industrialise it because these applications I have looked at are on prime arable land, some of the best agricultural land in Norfolk.”

He raised concerns that while planning officers had gained experience of wind farms over a number of years, there was not enough guidance to cope with the sudden explosion of solar farm applications.

He said: “On the one hand planners have government policy saying ‘renewables, renewables, renewables’, but on the other hand they have to consider the landscape issues and, because it is two policies pulling in two directions, you can see where the difficulty lies.

“There is not a depth of experience with regard to solar applications. They are working in a vacuum because there is not the guidance coming from central government on how to tackle these applications.”

An application to build a solar farm at a 71-acre site along the Norfolk coast in Thornham was thrown out by West Norfolk Council last week.

The five-fold increase in the number of planning applications has been largely driven by renewable energy firms hoping to take advantage of government subsidies ahead of an expected 25pc cut in April 2013.

The government is considering the results of a consultation on reducing the value of renewable obligations certificates, which it has used to encourage investment in large solar farms since 2002, and a final decision is due shortly.

Richard Pike, chairman of Norwich-based renewable energy company PikeSolar, said the industry viewed the cut “as a severe threat to its potential to maximise this source of abundant renewable energy for the UK”.

The move follows the government’s decision last year to impose a more than 50pc cut on subsidies for solar energy that householders or businesses sell to the National Grid from solar panels installed after April 1 this year.

Dick Wingate, a planning consultant for PikeSolar, said solar farms are better for biodiversity than arable fields, which are ploughed and planted, and provide a better environment for wild plants, insects and animals.

He said: “It is energy production and it’s the same as oil seed rape. I know people who don’t like to see fields of bright yellow. Yes, it’s different, but you get used to different. It’s one of a series of alternative renewable energy sources and it’s an established part of science that these various forms make a contribution. The problem does not come down to are they a good thing. It comes down to are they in the right place and that’s the planning argument.”

The government has a target of 15pc of energy coming from renewables by 2020, and University of East Anglia scientist Keith Tovey said wind and energy were quick and easy to build to help fill an energy gap when nuclear and coal-produced electricity falls in 2015.

He said: “There is a big problem with solar farms in that they cover a large amount of land area which is then precluded from crop farming whereas if you have a wind turbine, there might be a bigger issue of a single point of intrusion but all around can be used for agriculture.”

He said that in some respects wind and solar were complementary, with more solar energy produced in the summer and more wind in the winter.

However, he said in East Anglia onshore wind power operated at an average of 26pc of their maximum capacity, compared to 10-12pc for solar, but the subsidy for solar farms was higher than that for wind.