There is a political battle raging over giant solar farms which blight the countryside and reduce food production, and smaller less impactful initiatives. Dorset so far has not shone but may now be catching up, says Rupert Hardy, Chair of North Dorset CPRE.
North Dorset CPRE has always been supportive of renewable energy, especially at a time of Climate Emergency, and we support small (less than 5MW) community-funded solar farms as do the Low Carbon Dorset team at Dorset Council (DC). However we have opposed a number of huge solar industrial power plant planning applications that can desecrate our beautiful countryside, especially if it is good agricultural land that should be growing food for Dorset.
We have also consistently argued for solar panels to be put on public buildings and industrial roofs, as well as more on household roofs.
The record though is lamentable. As of September 2021, 95.4% of households and 98.4% of businesses within the DC area did not have solar panels on their roofs. Why?
Local ownership of panels
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, community energy groups have sprung 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 month 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.
As many as 280 MPs (out of 650) have now committed their support to this Bill, which is designed to ensure that Ofgem creates a ‘Right to Local Supply’ framework.
There was no mention of funding for community energy in the Prime Minister’s Ten-Point Plan in 2020, nor in recent Budgets, while most of the decarbonisation funding is going to local authorities and not community groups.
Many also ask why the government did not make the fitting of solar panels on all
new buildings mandatory in its low carbon strategy announced before COP26, rather than subsidising heat pumps, which are not feasible or too expensive for many homes. Some councils also now stipulate solar PV provision as part of their planning conditions, but DC have not yet.
Despite this, last March 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 are using a company, IDDEA, which has already installed 1,000 panels across southern England. The Swanage Mayor, Mike Bonfield, is fully supportive and praised it as a “brilliant scheme”. How about some of our North Dorset towns encouraging the same?
Non impact initiatives
One of the reasons for slow progress on industrial buildings has been issues of building ownership and leasehold arrangements, as well as roof weight and warranties. However progress is now being made to improve the energy efficiency on public buildings in Dorset, 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.
In the last year DC was given £19m by the government for more renewable projects, which include solar PV, heat pumps and LED lighting. This was one of the biggest grant packages given by the government, so well done DC. It is paying for panels to go on the roof of Durlston Castle and the art gallery, County Hall in Dorchester, and various schools.
In North Dorset, Blandford School is adding more panels to its existing ones, while Gillingham School has
installed some too.
Bridport-based Dorset Community Energy, which facilitates community ownership of renewable energy production, has financed the installation of panels on twelve schools, including Blandford School, and four community buildings throughout Dorset, such as Blandford Community Hospital. Thanks initially to the Lottery, and now 98 local shareholders, it has funded 1.5MW of panels. We hope to see more of these community-led projects.
The church enters the battle!
The Church of England may not be a pioneering custodian of the nation’s most historic fabric, but it is now installing panels on many of Dorset’s churches, even Grade I listed medieval ones such as St Mary of the Annunciation, Beaminster, as they will be barely visible from the ground. Farmers are slowly 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. Mole Energy, part of Mole Valley Farmers, the co- operative group, have certainly been busy promoting the fitting of panels to farm buildings here, but have pointed out that renewed demand is now facing capacity issues. 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.
We have openly criticised DC’s Draft Local Plan for its total lack of ambition in pushing developers to adopt more sustainable and energy efficient building standards, compatible with its declared Climate Emergency strategy.
However the recent publication of DC’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy promises positive changes, so we urge DC to include initiatives to promote roof-mounted panels in the Local Plan’s next iteration this spring. Please do ask your MP to put pressure though on government for a more credible low carbon strategy, as this is so critical.
Rupert Hardy Chairman, North Dorset, Campaign to Protect Rural England