The following article by Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall was published in the April 2015 issue of Wiltshire Life Magazine
At the start of the year Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s community energy arm (WWCE) raised almost £3 million pounds in investment to build the Braydon Manor Farm solar array near Purton. Its second solar development in the county, it will be one of the largest community-owned solar farms in the UK. With nearly 90% of the investment coming from residents of Wiltshire and neighbouring counties this was a resounding endorsement of solar energy locally. But why is one of the Wildlife Trusts getting involved at all?
WWCE says it is motivated by concern about the impact of climate change on wildlife; it identified solar PV as the most appropriate renewable energy technology because it also offers huge potential benefits for biodiversity and ecology.
Wiltshire’s rolling farmland and open landscapes mask a hidden problem common to many rural areas – in the past 50 years some 60% of the UK’s wildlife species have declined (2013 report The State of Nature). Since the 1930s, lowland wildflower meadows have shown a staggering fall of 97%. The drop in numbers of pollinators such as bees has been well documented and is particularly worrying given their essential role in food production.
However, solar farms that are managed to promote biodiversity have been proven to counter this. The panels typically cover only 30% of the land area, occupying a footprint of just 5%, leaving plenty of space for other land uses. Simply giving the land a rest from intensive farming offers benefits for wildlife, but taking a proactive approach by sowing appropriate wildflowers and native grasses yields a dramatic improvement in biodiversity.
The dense hedgerows which surround solar farms and screen them from public view also provide important habitats for wildlife; adding ponds, bird and bat boxes and hibernacula to provide homes for reptiles and amphibians transforms a solar farm into a wildlife haven for 25 years.
A study carried out by leading ecologist Dr Guy Parker during summer 2013 at Westmill solar farm near Swindon showed three times as many bumblebees and a tenfold increase in butterflies compared with a nearby control plot. Apparently bees really like the contrast of light and shade provided by the panels. The variety of plant species was also far more diverse - with the solar farm hosting 65 (of which 37 were considered rare) compared with just four on the control plot.
Maintenance is simple with sheep grazing around the panels in autumn and winter, ensuring the land stays in agricultural use and continues to be used for food production as well as generating clean energy. So the accusation that solar farms impact food production is unfair – climate change and the decline in pollinators pose a far greater threat and can be mitigated by solar farms.
Good solar developments also bring tangible financial benefits to the communities where they are located. Many developers voluntarily offer a community fund: an annual index-linked payment relating to the size of the solar farm which can make a real difference to cash-strapped parish councils. Community ownership can offer even more; WWCE’s Braydon Manor array is expected to generate over £2 million over 25 years to be shared between the community and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Some companies also work directly with nearby schools to use the solar farm for science learning.
Rising energy costs and extreme weather events put increasing economic pressure on farmers to diversify. By providing them with a constant, predictable income, a solar array helps maintain farming as a local way of life, preserving the agricultural character of the local landscape for the future. Better a temporary solar farm than a permanent housing or industrial development. The panels are easy to screen in the landscape and do no lasting damage – after 25 years the land can be completely restored.
Wiltshire is lucky to be home to a number of solar businesses who prioritise good ecology and biodiversity at the sites they develop as well as offering excellent community benefits, such as Solstice Renewables in Aldbourne, Good Energy in Chippenham and Public Power Solutions owned by Swindon Borough Council.
It’s no wonder that the value of solar farms is recognised not only by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust but also by the National Trust, the RSPB, Buglife, Friends of the Earth and the Bumblebee Trust. With 40 solar parks in the county already built or approved, capable of powering a third of Wiltshire’s homes, solar is something to be celebrated.