Let there be light! – Solar Farms

We know that the transition to a net zero carbon economy is a global priority, and renewable energy sources such as solar farms play a crucial role in achieving this goal. In town planning, the integration of this renewable energy source can bring a range of benefits, from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving energy security.

Solar farms are a great way to generate clean, renewable energy. They are also becoming more and more common in the UK. But what exactly are solar farms, and how do they fit into the UK town planning system?

In this blog post, we will answer all of your questions about solar farms in the UK. We will discuss the pros and cons of solar energy, and how solar farms can contribute to our net zero journey.

What are solar farms?

A solar farm is a large-scale collection of solar panels. Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity. Solar farms can be located on land or on water.

Solar farms are a relatively new technology, but they are quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to generate clean energy. They are expected to continue to grow in popularity in the years to come.

How do solar farms fit into the UK town planning system?

Some solar installations are classed as permitted development in the England under Part 14 of the General Permitted Development Order (as amended) 2015, which means that they do not need planning permission.  However solar farms require planning permission given the scale.

Notwithstanding this the town planning system is designed to encourage the development of renewable energy. The government has set a target of generating 100% of the UK’s electricity from renewable sources by 2035. Solar farms will play a key role in meeting this target.

What are the pros and cons of solar energy?

There are many pros to using solar energy…

  • Renewable energy is a clean and sustainable source of energy.
  • Renewable energy is a reliable source of energy. Solar power can be an intermittent source of energy, but they can be stored in batteries or pumped storage facilities.
  • Solar farms can help with securing the viability of land associated with a working farm by diversifying the business and bringing in another income stream.

However like everything there are also cons…

  • The cost of solar panels has been declining in recent years, but they can still be a significant investment.
  • Solar power can be intermittent sources of energy, not always available, and they can sometimes produce less electricity than is needed.
  • Renewable energy technologies can take up a lot of space.

How can solar farms contribute to our net zero journey?

Solar farms can help the UK to reach its net zero target by generating clean, renewable energy. Solar farms can also help to reduce the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels. The more solar farms that are built, the less the UK will need to import fossil fuels.

What is the planning process for solar farms?

Under the Planning Act 2008 development consent for the construction or extension of a solar farm with a generating capacity of more than 50MW (AC) is required through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) process.

The NSIPs procedure seeks to streamline the decision-making process for major infrastructure projects, making it fairer and faster for communities and applicants alike.  The Planning Inspectorate is the government agency responsible for operating the planning process for NSIPs.

Proposals under the 50MW threshold can be made by application to the Local Planning Authority (LPA) in the usual manner.  Any project should be assessed on the AC export capacity not the DC of the array alone for threshold calculation.

Can solar farms share infrastructure?

Yes, a proposal near to an existing solar farm and propose to share infrastructure, for example a substation to connect to the national grid. If so, there may be some interdependencies between the developments.

At first glance, such an application would fall outside of the NSIP process, but there may be wider considerations.  Consideration may need to be given as to whether the proposal represents an extension to an extant solar farm by means of being functionally linked, and if so, whether the combined generating capacity would then exceed the 50MW AC threshold.  A court judgement is expected shortly to confirm how such proposals should be dealt with.

What are the general planning issues for solar developments?

There are some town planning issues associated with solar farms. For example, some people object to the visual impact of solar farms, and there have been concerns about the impact of solar farms on wildlife. However, these issues can often be mitigated by careful planning and design.

Overall, solar farms can be a great way to generate clean, renewable energy. However, developers need to carefully consider the location, size, cost, planning permission, and environmental impact of solar farms before they start building.

  • Location:The location of a solar farm is important because it will affect the amount of sunlight that the panels receive. The ideal location for a solar farm is a flat, open area with plenty of sunlight.  Buffer zones may be required to separate the proposed farm from residential areas, to reduce the impact of noise and light or to reduce visual impact of a proposal.
  • Size:The size of a solar farm will depend on the amount of electricity that the developer wants to generate. Solar farms can be as small as a few acres or as large as hundreds of acres.
  • Cost:The cost of building a solar farm can be significant. The cost of the panels, the inverters, and the land will all need to be considered.
  • Planning permission: The planning permission process can be complex, and it is important to get advice from a planning consultant.
  • Environmental impact:Solar farms can have a positive impact on the environment. They can help to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. However, solar farms can also have a negative impact on the environment. For example, they can take up land that could be used for other purposes, and they can sometimes disturb wildlife.
  • Infrastructure: Connection to the grid is important, capacity issues are a hot topic in terms of the development of renewable energy and must be addressed. For operational reasons solar farms need to be in proximity to a substation with capacity and ideally have battery storage included as part of the development.
  • Access: Any proposed site must have suitable access routes for construction and maintenance vehicles, and these must be assessed for their impact on the local road network and any other users.

Is there planning support for solar farms?

Recently in May 2023 there have been cases of approvals of appeals for solar farms where harm has been identified demonstrating the commitment of town planning to support such developments.  For instance a 49.9Mw solar farm on open farmland in County Durham secured planning permission on the basis of renewable energy and biodiversity benefits which were seen to outweigh landscape harm. Appeal ref: APP/X1355/W/22/3308881

Rotherham Council resolved to approve the full planning application for the 49.9MW scheme in the greenbelt.  Overall, the Council’s report said that “the public benefits of the proposal are of sufficient magnitude to outweigh the substantial harm found to the green belt and all other harm identified”…”In this context, the harm to the green belt would be clearly outweighed by the other considerations and therefore the very special circumstances necessary to justify the development exist.” Ref: RB2022/1203 – Installation and operation of a solar energy park and associated infrastructure at Common Farm Bookers Lane Dinnington for Banks Renewables Common Farm Solar Farm Ltd.

Planning permission was granted for a 49.99MW solar farm in Essex with the inspector concluded that the overarching public benefits of providing a large-scale renewable energy scheme in line with climate change interests and supporting national energy needs carried considerable weight. Reference: S62A/22/0006

North Tyneside Council considered that the benefits of a 28Mw solar farm would “significantly and demonstrably outweigh” the harm to the green belt and said the development was justified on the basis of “very special circumstances” .  Ref: 22/02106/FUL – Change of use of land and construction of solar PV panels (up to 28 MW), associated electrical infrastructure, operational buildings, substations, lattice tower, security fencing, CCTV, access tracks, landscaping and other ancillary works at Land To The East Of Backworth Lane Backworth NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE

Julie James, Welsh Minister for Climate Change, has approved a large solar farm in Anglesey, which was called in as a Development of National Significance despite its location on high-quality agricultural land, because of its contribution to Wales’s net-zero goals. The proposal would reduce CO2 emissions by more than 7,840 tonnes each year, providing enough electricity to power 11,600 homes. The developer would also pay £7,000 a year into a community benefit fund, totalling around £280,000. The Welsh Minister agreed with the inspector that there was an “overriding need” for the proposal. Reference: DNS/3217391

How do we make the most of Solar Power?

Solar farms can feed into battery energy storage. This is becoming increasingly common as a way to maximize the benefits of both solar power and battery storage.

When solar panels generate electricity, they can either feed it directly into the grid or store it in batteries. When batteries are full, they can release the electricity back onto the grid when it is needed. This helps to smooth out the peaks and troughs in electricity demand, which can help to reduce the cost of electricity for everyone.

Overall, solar farms and battery energy storage are a great way to generate clean, renewable energy and to make the grid more reliable.

Solar farms can contribute to our net zero journey by generating clean, renewable energy and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.  So let there be light!

Related Content:

Whilst this article focuses on solar farms as energy prices increase, people are increasingly looking to new, more economic ways of generating power and heat for their homes and businesses. Solar Panels are still a popular alternative to traditional energy providers. Take a look at our blogs Do You Need Planning Permission to Install Solar Panels? and Are There Any Restrictions On Installing Solar Panels On A Home Permitted By One Of The Classes In The General Permitted Development Order?

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planning permission for Solar Farms