Blog: 2 August 2021A giant leap for solar energy needs a small, important step for planning

Since it started becoming a major UK energy source in 2010, solar power has struggled to fulfil its huge potential. In 2020 solar supported only 4.1 per cent of UK electricity consumption as opposed to 24.8 per cent for wind. On our blustery and overcast isle this might appear logical, but one cannot live on wind alone. Solar farms are key to meeting the government’s net zero obligations – and to facilitate a step change in solar power development, we need to address the barriers in the planning system.

There are many benefits of solar farms relative to other renewable energy options in the UK. It is inherently low-rise and can still co-exist with agriculture – with sheep and geese frequently reared below the panels. There is a general understanding that solar is a non-obtrusive method of green local power generation and it is amongst the cheapest sources of energy available. 

The recent report from Solar Energy UK, ‘Lighting the way, predicts that at least 40GW of solar is needed in the UK by 2030 to meet our sustainability goals – tripling our current installed capacity. An ambition reflected in the Climate Change Committee’s 2021 Progress Report to Parliament. This is a mammoth endeavour, especially as developers and operators of large scale solar developments and the associated infrastructure are faced with significant barriers.

Viable solar farms require large portions of land, with nearby access to connection points to the national grid, uninterrupted by road and rail links. Local plans often do not allocate specific land for solar, or when they do it does not actually meet these requirements. So most of the obvious locations have now been used, and remaining brownfield sites are frequently too small or inappropriately located to be viable. 

Currently the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) classifies renewables as “inappropriate development” in the Green Belt, for which “very special circumstances” must be proven for development to be approved. The NPPF does, however, qualify this by saying very special circumstances may include “the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources”.

In our recent solar work, this caveat has been sufficient to justify development in most cases – but this ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach is one of the barriers preventing solar from moving forward at the pace we need. The government should amend the NPPF to specifically classify solar as appropriate development in the Green Belt.

It’s not a massive jump from the current position – but would substantially ease the process of solar development. A test could be introduced with the policy revision to check that there would be no detrimental effect on openness – bringing peace of mind to neighbours and policy-makers. But above all, the switch to ‘innocent until proven guilty’ for solar development on Green Belt is vital and necessary for our net zero ambitions.

This change should go hand in hand with reviewing how local plans treat solar – and by extension encouraging solar developers and operators to get more engaged with the local planning process.  This way planners will know in greater detail the requirements of sites and can adapt plans accordingly. Only by bringing forward these changes can we move fast enough towards the 40GW goal – and towards a brighter, sunnier future.

Originally publsihed in The Planner.

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