ENGAGING COMMUNITIES WITH SOLAR FARMS
Utility-scale solar parks have been the big renewable energy success story of the last couple of years.
According to Regen SW’s latest annual Renewable Energy Progress Report, the Southwest added over 250 MW solar in the past year – 80% of which was megawatt scale solar farms. Compare that with just 5.5 MW of onshore wind (currently the UK’s most cost-effective renewable technology) and it’s clear that large-scale solar is going to play an increasingly important part in helping meet the UK’s green energy targets.
Until recently, getting a solar park through planning was relatively straightforward and quick – certainly in comparison with wind farms. One developer told me his solar applications typically received only a handful of objections. However, we are now starting to see a growing public backlash against solar which is making it much more challenging to get planning permission.
Proliferation is one reason, as well as a few high-profile negative stories in the media. This piece from the Telegraph is typical – in which a Devon county councillor is quoted comparing a consented solar farm to a concentration camp. Another application for a 16MW solar farm in Suffolk was recently refused following a raft of objections from local residents including TV personality Griff Rhys Jones.
If the large-scale solar industry doesn’t want to face the same difficulties which have plagued onshore wind farms, it needs to work hard to maintain the high level of public support it currently enjoys.
Of course, solar farm proposals should be sensitively designed and in the right location – just like any other renewable development. But they should also offer a good community benefit. The industry standard for wind farms has recently risen to £5,000 per MW; while communities affected by fracking for shale gas so beloved by George Osborne are set to get around £100,000 per well. There is so far no benchmark for solar – although developers who ‘get it’ now offer £1,000 per MW in community benefit as standard. But there are still many who don’t.
Early and effective stakeholder engagement is also key to helping solar parks progress easily through planning. There’s no substitute for friendly, face-to-face contact – and developers should emphasise the economic benefits they can bring to an area, for example through the supply chain, as well as the environmental advantages, such as wildflower planting to support bees.
Innovative financing models which give large numbers of people the chance to share the financial benefits also help boost public acceptance. Westmill Solar Cooperative – the world’s largest community-owned solar coop - is an inspiring example of how this works in practice. And organisations such as Abundance are using a crowdfunding model to make it easy for people to invest in solar energy projects.
As Greg Barker MP said in a recent speech to the industry: “Involving communities in developing projects and bringing them with you…will be vital in creating a sustainable future for large-scale solar PV.”
Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall, founder, SFW Communications