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Why do we need solar energy?

Some 97% of the world’s scientists agree that the planet is heating up, and manmade carbon dioxide emissions are responsible. The way we generate energy is the largest contributor to carbon emissions, so there is an urgent need to decarbonise our energy supplies for the future, as well as to reduce our overall energy usage.

In December 2015, 195 countries reached a landmark Climate Change agreement in Paris to limit the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees celsius, with an aspiration to keep it to 1.5 degrees. Many commentators believe this marks the end of the era of fossil fuels and the transition to a new clean energy future.

In November 2014, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that renewables would need to grow to 80% of global power by 2050 if “severe, pervasive and irreversible” damage is to be avoided.

The UK has a binding international target to generate 15% of energy (30% of electricity) from renewable sources by 2020. Solar power is a well-established technology, which is falling in cost. By the end of 2015, renewables accounted for 25% of overall UK electricity generation, with solar’s capacity comprising 8.2 MW, or 29% of overall renewable capacity. (Source: DECC)

The UK is also facing an energy supply catastrophe, following decades of underinvestment. The energy regulator OFGEM has warned of a risk of power cuts as early as 2015 if we do not start getting more power generation online very quickly.

The UK energy supply currently depends heavily on imported fossil fuels; solar power can give us homegrown electricity, which can be generated and used close to where it is needed, improving the UK’s energy security.

Solar energy is low impact, relatively low cost, beneficial to local wildlife, has limited impact on local communities and it performs well in the British climate.

What is a solar farm?

A solar farm, or solar park, is the large-scale use of Solar Photovoltaic Panels (PV) to generate renewable electricity. The panels convert sunlight into electricity and feed it into the local electricity grid via inverters, which change the current from DC to AC. Solar panels do not need direct sunshine to work, but can also generate electricity when the weather is cloudy or overcast.

Approximately 50 acres of land is needed for every 10 megawatts (MW) capacity of solar PV – enough to power 3,000 average homes and save 4,300 tonnes of CO2 per year. Because solar farms require large areas of land they tend to be developed in rural areas where there is space and they can be well screened. They are subject to a rigorous planning process, which takes into account the characteristics of the site and any potential impact on the area.

What is the impact on the local landscape?

A solar farm should be appropriately designed and located so that it has a minimal visual impact on the surrounding area. A well-designed solar farm will take advantage of natural screening due to contours in the land and existing hedgerows and woodland. Screening can also be improved with new planting of hedgerows and trees as part of a land management plan; this is all taken into account during the planning process.

Panels are installed on metal frames screwed directly into the ground – no concrete is used in their construction. The inverters which convert the current are housed in small boxes which are located to cause minimal intrusion.

Security fences are necessary to protect the solar farm, with their design complying with the local planning authority requirements. Deer fences are usually used so that they blend in well with the surrounding countryside, smaller mammals can still have access to the land enclosed by the solar farm.

Solar farms are temporary – planning permission is usually granted for 25 years; after that all the equipment can be removed and mostly recycled and the land can revert to its previous use.

Against a backdrop of rising energy costs and extreme weather events, there is increasing economic pressure on farmers to diversify. By providing a constant source of income, a solar farm can help maintain farming as a local way of life, preserving the agricultural character of the local landscape for the future.

What impact do solar farms have on food production?

sheep solar panel 3Very little. Climate change and the decline in pollinators, such as bees, probably pose a far greater threat to food production – and these can both be mitigated by solar farms. On an agricultural site, the land can continue to be used for sheep grazing and beekeeping, for example. The solar panels only take up around one third of the land area; the rest can be planted with grasses and wildflowers to encourage wildlife and improve biodiversity.

According to the Solar Trade Association, the UK has 59 million acres of land, with 45 million in agricultural production.  10GW of solar would only use 60,000 acres or 0.1% of overall UK land area. The impact on food production would therefore be incredibly small even if arable land was used; currently substantially more land is proposed for growing energy crops such as willow and miscanthus, which generate much less energy per acre than a solar farm – around a tenth.

The National Farmers’ Union and BRE National Solar Centre have published these guidelines: BRE (2014) Agricultural Good Practice Guidance for Solar Farms

How safe are solar farms?

Solar is one of the safest energy generation technologies in the world. Solar PV technology dates back to the 1950s and its use is widespread throughout the world – not only in large-scale solar farms but in domestic situations too, in the form of rooftop solar panels.

Solar cells are made from silicon, almost the same as sand, and contain no heavy metals or toxic substances. They are covered with a thin layer of protective tempered glass, and all the materials are non-volatile in normal operating conditions and insoluble. Solar panels have no moving parts and create no emissions. Solar panels do not emit energy radiation and therefore cannot interfere with equipment such as mobile phones, heart monitors, pacemakers, hearing aids or TV reception.

What impact does the solar farm have on wildlife?

Verwood 2

Wildflowers growing at our solar farm at Manor Farm, Verwood

In essence, a solar farm is a nature reserve that is left largely untouched for 25 years, resulting in huge benefits for wildlife and biodiversity. Their ecological value is recognised by organisations such as the National Trust, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and the Bumblebee Trust. As the RSPB says, “Solar farms could be a real asset in our countryside by giving declining wildlife like bees and farmland birds a home.”

In Britain, wildflower meadows have decreased by 97% since the 1930s thanks to intensive farming practices. The decline in pollinators, such as bees, is particularly worrying, and has an economic as well as environmental impact – according to the government, pollinators are thought to be worth around £400m a year to the UK economy. Our solar farms are designed to boost biodiversity with progressive ecological and land management plans to create wildlife havens, encouraging bees, butterflies, bats, etc.

All our sites comply with or exceed BRE (2014) Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Development. Click here to view the BRE National Solar Centre Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments.

How will local residents benefit?

The green electricity produced by a solar farm is fed into the local grid and it will travel the shortest distance to meet demand closest to the area where it is generated. That means that when the solar farm is generating power, local residents and businesses will be drawing their electricity supply from the solar farm – energy which is clean and green.

We are keen that local residents share the benefits from our solar parks, through educational opportunities linked to the development, as well as directly through a community benefit fund. We work with Parish and Town councils and also welcome local input on how this could best be used to bring economic, social and environmental benefits to the area.

Are there any increased flood risks?

Flood risk does not increase with the installation of solar farms, as only a very small proportion on the solar farm is in direct contact with the ground, and the design of a solar farm will take account of any existing flood risks.

It could be argued that as solar farms reduce carbon emissions they are helping reduce the risk of future flooding due to climate change.

Is there a risk from glint and glare? 

Solar panels are designed to absorb light rather than to reflect it. They are considered safe to install close to airports, near major roads and even besides car race tracks such as the ‘Top Gear’ test track. The reflection from a solar farm is much less than from, say, commercial greenhouses or polytunnels – from a distance they appear in the landscape similar to a ploughed field.

What is the impact of a solar farm on property prices?

There is no evidence to suggest that solar farms affect property prices either positively or negatively. A well-screened site cannot be seen unless you are standing next to it, they operate silently and safely and are widely accepted by the public.

How efficient are solar panels? 

While solar panels obviously do not generate power at night when it is dark, they fit well into a portfolio of different generation technologies because their generation is easy to predict – we know precisely when sunrise and sunset occurs, as well as likely seasonal variability, so they can be easily integrated with the variability of the grid.

When energy is transmitted from large power plants across the country, around 10% is lost in the process. However as solar electricity tends to be used close to where it is generated losses from transmission are greatly reduced. 

The “energy payback’ time for Solar PV has continued to fall as technology has improved and panels have become more efficient, and now ranges from just 0.55 to 1.3 years, taking into account the whole solar life cycle including manufacturing, operation and recycling. Report from Bavarian Institute of Applied Environmental Research and Technology.

What makes a good location for a solar farm?

There are strict planning rules governing the location of a solar farm. It should be able to be easily screened, generally free from landscape designations (such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) unless there are exceptional circumstances, and ideally close to local areas of power demand such as towns.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It also needs to be generally unshaded with good levels of sunlight, and with easy access by road for construction.

However the biggest constraint on locating a solar farm is access to the local electricity grid, which is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive, therefore reducing the availability of suitable sites within the UK.

How popular are solar farms?

The Department of Energy and Climate Change conducts regular surveys on public attitudes to renewable energy. These consistently show that solar is the most popular renewable technology in the UK, with 85% of the public supporting it.