‘It’s just too big’: division over plans for UK’s biggest solar farm

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A fewer 100 metres from her house, Rosemary Lewis stands astatine a clearing connected a footpath overlooking a tract of rolling hills successful nan Oxfordshire countryside that could go location to UK’s largest star farm. With plans to instal 2.5m star panels on an 11-mile (18km) agelong northbound of Oxford, nan Botley West star workplace would beryllium vast.

The connection is 1 of 30 large-scale star projects vying for approval, which could springiness nan UK a much-needed changeable successful nan limb to execute its ambiance goals of generating 100% cleanable energy by 2035 and reaching nett zero greenhouse state emissions by 2050.

But Lewis sees it differently. “It’s a nightmare,” she says of nan connection that would dispersed crossed 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) of mostly greenish loop land. Her husband, Tom, says: “It’s conscionable excessively big. We will beryllium surviving connected an business site.”

Large-scale star farms person go nan latest nett zero exertion to beryllium bogged down by section disputes and polarising debates crossed nan country. A increasing conjugation of grassroots groups reason that nan ballooning pipeline of star developments would “armour-plate” nan countryside, destruct bully farmland and frighten nutrient security. Instead, they want to spot star “in nan correct places”, connected rooftops and brownfield sites.

Conservative MPs, representing nan agrarian constituencies wherever these star proposals are concentrated, person fixed their support to calls for stricter rules to modulate star connected farmland.

However, while astir experts work together that a deficiency of onshore usage and power readying has led to a suboptimal and opportunistic attack to star deployment, large-scale star is 1 of nan cardinal building blocks of nan UK’s ambiance plan. “Solar connected farmland is an important portion of power decarbonisation,” said Tom Lancaster, of nan Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU).

To decarbonise nan energy system, nan Conservative authorities said it would summation star capacity astir fivefold to 70GW by 2035 and called for “large-scale ground-mounted star deployment crossed nan UK” – 1 of nan cheapest forms of energy generation. To equilibrium power information and nutrient production, it told developers to prioritise poorer-quality onshore and debar utilizing nan champion farmland for ample projects “where possible”.

Solar panels connected a rooftop
Campaigners opportunity nan attraction should beryllium connected installing panels connected rooftops and antecedently developed land. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Rex/Shutterstock

The Botley West connection goes to nan bosom of nan issue. The star workplace would costs £950m to build connected onshore predominantly leased by nan Blenheim estate, 38% of which is considered “best and astir versatile” cultivation land. Campaigners person been lobbying nan authorities to alteration nan rules and restrict large-scale star connected farmland moreover of mean quality.

This “would fundamentally do to star what has been done to onshore upwind successful England”, said Lancaster, referring to nan preamble of readying rules that brought nan nascent onshore upwind manufacture to a juddering halt.

He said rolling retired star powerfulness successful statement pinch nan nett zero extremity would return up little than 1% of nan UK’s cultivation land, which would person “relatively insignificant” impacts connected nutrient information compared pinch different non-food uses, specified arsenic bioenergy crops.

What was lacking was “a chopper position from nan centre of authorities complete what we usage onshore for” that could minimise conflicts and trade-offs, he added. The authorities has many times delayed nan publication of a onshore usage model for nan UK.

Nick Eyre, a professor of power and ambiance argumentation astatine Oxford University, said star connected rooftop and brownfield sites must beryllium deployed astatine greater velocity but it would not beryllium capable for nan UK unafraid nan star powerfulness it needed to meet decarbonisation goals.

By 2050, Oxfordshire unsocial would request nan balanced of 4 aliases 5 Botley Wests successful star capacity nether a progressive scenario, he said. “We should person had a scheme for wherever star was going to get built successful nan region and activity from there. But if we want to build star quickly past this is astir apt nan benignant of task that needs to spell ahead.”

A greenish section nether a cloudy sky
A section that would beryllium covered successful star panels nether nan Botley West proposal. Photograph: Chloé Farand

The German developer Photovolt Development Partners (PVDP) says nan 840MW Botley West connection could powerfulness 330,000 homes and has been designed to trim nan ocular effect connected nan landscape, summation biodiversity and let sheep to graze nan land.

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Solar farms this large are designated arsenic nationally important infrastructure projects and are examined by nan Planning Inspectorate, pinch nan caput of authorities making nan last decision, which will autumn to nan adjacent government. PVDP expects to taxable a readying exertion successful September and hopes to commencement generating powerfulness successful 2027.

Alex Rogers, a professor astatine nan University of Oxford who specialises successful marine ecology, and who chairs nan Stop Botley West campaign, rejects accusations that nan group is made up of an aged defender of anti-solar nimbys. “I spot nan impacts of ambiance alteration everyplace we spell successful nan ocean. There is perfectly nary uncertainty that we are successful a ambiance emergency,” he said. The problem, he said, was a vacuum successful nationalist policies, which had led to a “solar golden rush”.

However, immoderate of nan campaign’s arguments are seemingly based connected much spurious claims. In what it describes arsenic “uncomfortable truths”, Stop Botley West says star farms are “inefficient” and nan strategy “may ne'er salary backmost its c debt”. A section predetermination leaflet from a Conservative campaigner and personnel of nan run falsely claimed that nan project’s c footprint “will beryllium greater than nan benefits”.

Eyre described nan declare that star farms are inefficient arsenic “misleading” and nan thought that it would not repay nan c indebtedness arsenic “simply wrong”.

The International Energy Agency says star panels request to run for only 4 to 8 months to offset their manufacturing emissions, and studies person shown that emissions savings from avoiding fossil fuels trump nan technology’s c footprint. While upwind powerfulness is much businesslike than solar, a caller Royal Society study recovered star powerfulness was a basal portion of nan mix.

Claims star farms are inefficient and “not environmentally friendly” are besides being promoted by nan UK Solar Alliance, a conjugation of 124 groups opposing astir 9GW worthy of large-scale star plans, arsenic portion of a toolkit of resources for section campaigns. The archive was compiled by nan alliance’s erstwhile chair Michael Alder, who precocious joined nan world advisory assembly of nan Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), nan UK’s astir salient ambiance sceptic thinktank, which has many times attacked renewable power and nett zero policies.

The Stop Botley West run and nan UK Solar Alliance opportunity they powerfully cull ambiance denial views. Alder told nan Guardian he was “not a ambiance alteration denier” but had accepted a GWPF invitation to “give independent views connected world papers”.

For Hilary Brown, nan chair of Sustainable Woodstock, nan Stop Botley West run has distracted from needed discussions astir really to amended nan connection truthful it benefits section group and quality if approved.

Despite nan vocal opposition, ECIU polling recovered that successful nan south-east of England 70% of respondents would support a star workplace being built successful their section area. Lilah McKim, 22, a section ambiance activist, said nan task gave her dream astatine a clip erstwhile nan world urgently needed ambiance action.

Source theguardian