Rupert Hardy, chairman of the North Dorset CPRE, takes a long look into the case for solar panels on roofs or in fields
North Dorset CPRE is well aware of the climate emergency and the severe impact of the Ukraine conflict on energy prices, and it is fully supportive of renewable energy development. The government has prioritised offshore wind power to supply the majority of our renewable energy needs.
But what can Dorset do?
New offshore wind farms are less likely to be proposed here. The ending of the virtual moratorium on onshore wind farms may result in new planning applications but 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 the current generation of
Developers will retort that we have plenty of potential sites for solar farms, 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 unsurprisingly more concerned with profit than saving the planet.
Profit not planet
This January in North Dorset we expect a hearing into the proposal for a 190-acre solar farm at Pulham/Mappowder. The CPRE has 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 countryside for which it is responsible, as well as the adverse impact on amenity and the flooding risk.
Last autumn, a proposal to cover no less than 1,400 acres of farmland near Chickerell (south west of Dorchester and equivalent to 885 soccer pitches) shocked many on account of its huge scale. It would be built on part of the Dorset AONB, desecrating countryside in the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, covered with ancient monuments.
There will of course be more applications in North Dorset. Is the renewable energy benefit a price worth paying?
We would argue that it is not.
Roof not field
Rooftop solar panels could provide the same output, although we are supportive of <5MW community-funded solar farms. If you missed it at the time, please do see our article in the BV last February on “Why is Dorset So Slow Putting Solar Panels on Roofs”.
Key factors that should be considered are:
- Solar farm inefficiency: They are hugely inefficient compared to offshore wind. Solar’s efficiency rating is 11 per cent, compared with 40 per cent for offshore wind.
- Negative impact: Solar farms are mostly power stations that industrialise the Dorset countryside that is loved 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 already be seen from Badbury Rings, an Iron Age hill fort.
- 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 a time when food prices are rocketing. 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 2022’s long hot summer. There was talk last summer of the government including 3b in its definition of “Best and Most Versatile” land, but this has recently been quashed by Therese 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 transiting animals are blocked, forcing them to cross roads.
- Amenity: Most solar farms have footpaths and bridleways crossing them, which are used by residents and visitors to enjoy the countryside.
- Permanent or temporary land use? Most solar farms are leased for 30 or 40 years, with the likelihood of applications to extend. 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 may be taken by landowners, against the wishes of their tenants who actually 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 the government needs to have a clearer solar policy, which it does not, compared with development of land for residential purposes. The proliferation of solar applications across the country make 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 per cent of households and 98 per cent 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 clash with net zero goals. Promoting rooftop solar makes much more sense. Dorset CPRE has calculated that by installing solar panels on 64 per cent of currently un-utilised buildings, the maximum government target for 2050 would be reached without building another solar farm (download the report here).
The figure for Dorset would likely be similar.
Last February we asked why 95 per cent of households and 98 per cent of businesses in Dorset had no roof-mounted solar panels, as of September 2021. The answer was first a failure by the government and DC (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 DC is finally looking at ways it can impose new conditions on developers. Other local authorities have already done this.
Retrofitting older buildings will be expensive, but VAT on domestic solar PV was dropped last April. Another way would be to increase funding of community energy groups, like Purbeck Energy, which facilitates the fitting of solar panels at discounted prices.
This would cost much less than direct subsidies to millions of home-owners.
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 began to spring 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 to properly plan for growth in line with net-zero commitments. More than 300 MPs have now 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, and the government seems 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 are using a company, IDDEA, which has already installed more than 1,000 panels across southern England. The Swanage mayor, Mike Bonfield, was fully supportive and praised it as a “brilliant scheme”. How about some of our North Dorset towns encouraging the same?
Solar PV on public, industrial and farm buildings
Historically, 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. 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 properties thanks to scale. 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, which gave grants of £5m to fund 4.1MW of projects, both public sector and business, thanks initially to the European Regional Development Fund. DC was 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, an 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 12 schools and four community buildings throughout Dorset, such as Blandford Community Hospital. Thanks initially to the Lottery and now 152 local shareholders, it has funded more than 1.5MW of panels. We hope to see more of these community-led projects.
On the farms
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. The council will now be funding directly 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 the reason why there is less retro-fitting, but access to the Grid is another. Mole Energy has been busy promoting the fitting of panels to farm buildings here, but has emphasised the serious Grid capacity issues, which got worse through 2022. The company says 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 now be too few installers.
Other solutions in Europe
In contrast to the UK’s approach, France has 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.
The UK already has 14.5GW of solar capacity operational. Meanwhile Germany has focussed on rooftops first, with 80 per cent of its solar power coming from panels that generate little public opposition.
CPRE is calling on the 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 also need to be resolved. 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.
Three 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; 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 be
withheld for commercial or public car parking spaces unless they also provide solar energy generation.
The government needs to give more financial support to community energy.
Here in North Dorset we neither want nor need another 1,400 acre Chickerell solar farm to blight our lives and desecrate our countryside!
It is not a price worth paying.