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Solar system
Planning – 11 March 2011

Government incentives have resulted in a slew of applications for solar farms in the south of England. Mark Smulian asks what planners can do to minimise their impact

The law of unintended consequences has produced a sudden rash of applications to build solar farms across the south of England and the Midlands.

Last year's introduction of the feed-in tariff - a form of guaranteed funding for green electricity aimed at encouraging the development of small-scale renewable power schemes - sparked what one planning consultant calls "a gold rush" of applications for commercial solar farms. This glut presents challenges to planners attempting to balance the obligation to combat global warming with a need to minimise any impact on local surroundings.

The proposed farms generally consist of thousands of photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity and feed it into the national grid. While some are planned for former quarries and military bases, the requirement for flat, shadeless terrain rules out many brownfield sites. As a result, most farms are likely to be built on low-grade agricultural land. As the UK's sunniest area, Cornwall has seen the lion's share of applications. Adrian Lea, manager of Cornwall Council's natural resources planning team, says: "We encourage solar farms onto low-grade agricultural land." He adds that sheep can be used to keep down grass between the panels, stopping vegetation from eventually blocking out sunlight, while maintaining some agricultural use.

Lea says the farms bring wide economic benefits. "They bring in jobs in construction, landscaping, maintenance and security. We're also talking to people about setting up solar technology manufacturing plants in Cornwall," he says. He adds that there have been few public objections to solar farm applications in Cornwall on visual grounds because the panels are only two to three metres high.

For example, when Cornwall Council approved Kronos Solar's North Petherwin farm in January, most objections related to consequent construction traffic, he says. North Petherwin Parish Council's objection was not even primarily to do with planning. "We objected because we felt the feed-in tariff was intended for small-scale projects, not large companies," says its chair, Peter Hurford.

But Cornwall's planners have had to insist on changes to some schemes. A 5MW Cornwall Power installation to supply a water treatment works near Lanhydrick was approved last year, but only after design amendments. Lea says: "It was very close to Restormel Castle and would have been visually intrusive. We worked with the developer so the project takes up less space but has the same capacity."

With the influx of applications, the council has produced a guide to dealing with solar farms. The document has no legal status but is available on request to other authorities.

In Lincolnshire, West Lindsey District Council has found little opposition to a proposal from Lunar Energy Power to build a solar farm on the former RAF Faldingworth base. Planning officer George Backovic says: "There have been few objections raised about visual impact since the base is away from housing. Also, the solar farm will be low to the ground, which should prevent visual intrusion."

But the Campaign to Protect Rural England is cautious about solar farms' wider impact. A spokesman says: "We are supportive of solar power in general, but we are less keen on them on greenfield sites, where we would not want to see a growth of pylons and grid connectors." The organisation also wants to keep solar farms out of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Solar farms are more common on the continent. Hugh Ellis, chief planner at campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association, thinks those he has studied in Austria hold some warnings for UK planners. "You are beginning to see the tensions from concentrations of them," he says. "There is their visual impact and biodiversity effect because the panels cover up habitats."

Ellis argues that planning policy should play a bigger part in deciding how solar farms are sited and how many are approved to avoid such issues. But a review of the feed-in tariff, announced last month by climate change secretary Chris Huhne, may reduce the pressure on planners as developers assess whether projects remain viable.

Huhne's problem is that the tariff was intended to subsidise home owners who wanted to install small-scale renewable energy systems, but the eligibility ceiling on power generation is generous enough to incentivise commercial solar farms as well. Following a surge in commercial applications, ministers realised that such interests might crowd out households due to the limited funding available.

Bernice Roberts, principal environmental planner at the Landmark Practice consultancy, says: "The Government ignored experience in Europe and set (the ceiling) too high at 5MW. It sparked a gold rush. There are some 60 proposals on the go for solar farms in the UK, but developers are already stopping them until the outcome of the review."

So, just as planners are getting used to the issues raised by high numbers of applications for solar farms, it could be that the fashion for solar among developers will descend over the horizon.