INDUSTRY COMMENT: PLANNING FOR SOLAR – A RAY OF SUNLIGHT
by WILLY BROWNE-SWINBURNE
Solar developers can now think differently when presenting a scheme to the planning authority.
As the cost of delivering solar has reduced and the climate change agenda is demanding more renewable energy schemes, it seems we are back on track as far as viable schemes are concerned. But since the heady days of the ‘feed in tariff’ and subsidy making solar a no brainer there are new catalysts which not only serve to make solar viable but also mean that the planning and landscape impact justification needs to be presented in a different way.
Well thought out landscape design, meaningful and inclusive community engagement and powerful economic evidence have always been key but a third pillar of evidence is now available to us in these applications and it is one that should take priority.
The new and ultimately most powerful argument lies in proving the biodiversity contribution that solar schemes can bring. On the face of it a solar farm does not look that biodiverse but the reality is that the ground beneath it immediately starts to improve in terms of soil health. How much more carbon does a solar scheme capture versus an intensively farmed wheat field over 25 years?
The latest update with National Planning Practice Guidance and National Planning Policy Framework is encouraging net gains for biodiversity to be sought through planning policies and decisions and we have seen recent appeals for development being tested against this objective.
With the lifespan of solar farms 25-35 years +, this gives a considerable time period for real improvement to be achieved.
This is not just a powerful planning justification it is a very alluring argument to any landowner who is looking to figure out how to adapt their agriculture and land use management, focusing on public good and natural capital as priorities detailed in the Agriculture Bill and the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.
Solar scheme applications should now be entirely ‘contribution driven’. We no longer have to apologise for the scheme and provide evidence to mitigate impact. On the contrary, we can now talk about the very positive contribution a scheme will make to the environment.
There is still a debate to be had about valuing that contribution and how it should be presented but we are working with a number of enlightened developers and landowners to work out that formula and would value any thoughts from others. Local Authorities are very much ‘at sea’ in terms of this but certainly understand the importance of it. Making applications in this context will be the future and now is the time to work together, across disciplines to make the case. For any planning and landscape design advice relating to rural solar schemes contact Willy Browne-Swinburne or Joanne Halton at Rural Solutions.