SFW Communications

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We offer PR & Comms consultancy focused on the ethical and sustainable business sector. With particular expertise in renewable energy, we’re seasoned campaigners with a great track record. And we’re passionate about influencing real change and empowering organisations to make a difference to their communities and in the wider world.

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What people really think about solar farms

I am lucky enough to live next to a solar farm. I cannot see it. I cannot hear it. But I know that during daylight hours I am getting clean, green electricity from it, and that makes me feel good.

There’s no wire coming from the solar farm into my house – the electricity gets fed into the grid through a nearby sub-station. But because of ‘distributed generation’ the power flows to meet the closest source of demand, which is my house and my neighbours’ homes and businesses – the equivalent of 3,000 homes for this 10 MW site. It’s a much more efficient way of generating energy compared to large centralised power stations because it avoids the transmission losses of 8% -10% that occur when power is transmitted across long distances.

My local solar farm, April 2014

My local solar farm, April 2014

It’s also a good use of land. Where I live feels rural and secluded but it’s actually on the edge of a medium-sized market town. New development is rife. In the last two years I’ve seen planning permission granted to build an enormous Tesco, a housing estate and an industrial estate on the green fields around me. Solar is a great alternative – the land will stay in agricultural usage, guaranteed for 25 years, while also generating renewable energy. What’s not to like?

 But, I work in the industry, so I would say that wouldn’t I? I wanted to find out what others think, so I asked my brilliant community Facebook page (almost 5,000 likes), where people aren’t shy of offering their opinions on local issues, from the best pub for a Sunday roast to people’s parking habits.

 These were a few typical responses:

 Sue E: “I knew it was going to happen but I didn’t know it was almost finished already. Brilliant as far as I am concerned. We need to invest more in renewables.”

 Des D: “Didn’t know it was there but anything to improve sustainability will get my vote.”

 Gary T: “Hadn’t noticed but now I know I think it’s brilliant. More please.”

 Overall, 31 people commented with 85% saying they liked it, or hadn’t noticed it – replicating national levels of support for solar farms according to DECC’s regular public attitude tracker surveys.

With this in mind, I don’t understand why Greg Barker MP is now reviewing support for large-scale solar. In a recent letter to MPs he said: “I do not want uncontrolled expansion of solar on the countryside … we mustn’t allow large inappropriately sited solar farms to undermine public support”. His concerns aren’t borne out by the evidence – anecdotal or empirical.

Last week another 10 MW project I was involved with breezed through planning with only one objection (the colour of a fence – easily fixed). Residents of Wroughton, near Swindon, are outraged that ‘their’ 40 MW project on a former airfield has been called in by the government for a public inquiry.

The photograph shows ‘my’ local solar farm, taken from a local beauty spot. It blends in with the landscape. I love it – and so do the vast majority of my neighbours. And that’s what people really think about solar farms.

Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall


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.

Involving communities in developing projects and bringing them with you ... will be vital in creating a sustainable future for large-scale solar PV.
— Greg Barker, MP

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


Giving evidence against wind farm buffer zones

The Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance (WCEA) gave evidence last week at the Planning Inspector’s hearing on the Wiltshire Core Strategy. Under scrutiny was one of the most controversial local policies: mandatory separation distances between wind turbines and houses.

Our presence was the culmination of a campaign we launched almost a year ago after a last-minute change to the Core Strategy imposed minimum buffers of 3km for large wind turbines. Wind is a key renewable technology for Wiltshire, and we believe this is unsound planning policy, not supported by any evidence.

Others who joined us in speaking up for wind power were the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and Chippenham MP Duncan Hames. Another somewhat unlikely ally was the Campaign for the Protection for Rural England, who clearly recognise the unfairness of the amendment. Defending the council’s policy was a cohort of Wiltshire Council officers whose jobs, of course, require them to do so.

The WCEA presented evidence from RegenSW which showed that if the buffer zones are allowed to stand the only part of Wiltshire that might be suitable for commercial-scale 2.5 MW wind turbines is a tiny triangle of woodland next to a bridleway in the south of the county.

So, without large-scale wind, how could Wiltshire fill the huge gap between its current very low levels of renewable generation and its aspiration of 367MW (30% by 2020)?

That was the key question for the Inspector, who asked the council officers to provide evidence on this no less than five times during the hearing. Something they were unable to do.

The WCEA made a strong case that wind farm planning applications should be considered on a case-by-case basis in line with national planning policy. And that there’s no evidence to suggest Wiltshire should be treated any differently from the rest of the country.

The Core Strategy Examination in Public last until 18th July 2013. We’ll have to wait several months for the results to be published. In the meantime, all forms of wind development – both commercial and community – are stymied. That is a great shame. But in the end we hope we will have a stronger policy in Wiltshire that will set an important precedent for other local authorities.

Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall is co-founder and coordinator of the Wiltshire Clean Energy Alliance which campaigns for fair planning policies for renewables.

No wind power for Wiltshire if controversial policy is allowed to stand

No wind power for Wiltshire if controversial policy is allowed to stand

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