In this series of posts, Sophie McGovern explores debate and innovation around renewable energy and sustainability
Here at National Trust we think solar PV is a fantastic renewable technology. It’s set to become the cheapest low-carbon technology based on current projections, and it is argued that solar will put a ceiling on our rising energy costs, not nuclear or fracking. All things considered solar development has profound economic and environmental benefits. That’s why we’ve already installed panels at some of the special places we look after.
But do the economic and environmental benefits mean that solar planning should be pushed through at any cost, anywhere?
I recently attended Eco Build 2014 where National Trust’s Senior External Affairs Advisor, James Lloyd spoke on the topic of solar planning. Although agreeing that solar has something immensely valuable to contribute to both community and environment, James argued the case for opposing inappropriately sited large-scale PV on our most sensitive landscapes.
Maintaining a Social License to Operate
When debating best practice around solar planning it’s apt to consider how public opinion regarding wind power and fracking has declined in recent times. At the moment solar has a relatively positive public profile, but inappropriate and irresponsible planning in sensitive areas could damage this. Developers looking out for their own short-term interests could negatively affect the long-term prospects of the industry. With growth there is risk, and the industry needs to maintain a social license to operate if it is to become a viable energy alternative. A number of UK solar farm developments have already been blocked due to local opposition and an increase in such cases could really set solar back.
Lloyd argues that:
“Ultimately the industry needs to win over hearts and minds. We have deep connections to our special places here in Britain and decisions on planning should respect this connection instead of focusing solely on utility and process. We want solar to make our special places even more special, not less so. To do this, developers need to engage communities and consider the wider reaching benefits for wildlife, landscape and the local economy.”
Development that considers community and conservation
The Solar Trade Association’s 10 Commitments and the National Solar Centre’s sector based planning guidance are an excellent start when it comes to a better approach to development, but the industry needs to go further. Solar developments that work with communities and with the spirit of a place are the way forward. Planning and site selection is a crucial part of this, as is early community engagement and the early sharing of any environmental impacts.
It is also important to consider how renewables can enhance the function of the landscape. We need to consider the potential benefits to local community and their precious places. Panels take up a small percentage of field space, for example, and there is scope for using the remaining land to deliver conservation or economic benefits. This could be through wild flower planting that attracts pollinators and thus has a positive impact on local wildlife and agriculture. The greatest opportunity with solar is community ownership, which will enable local people to generate energy for themselves.
National Trust believes strongly in the need to grow renewable energy- we have a target to generate 50 per cent of our own energy from renewables by 2020– but we also believe that this can be done without putting the beauty of our natural and built heritage at risk. With the right approach renewables can make our places more, not less special.
We welcome you to join in the solar debate. Do you think that PV should be installed regardless of impact on landscape? Do you oppose solar development in a precious place near you?
Sophie-Ann McGovern is a media and communications intern at National Trust with a focus on energy and sustainability. She has a BA English Literature from Leeds University and an MA Creative writing from Bath Spa.
When not working at the Trust she can generally be found scampering around the countryside, cruising along the Kennet and Avon in her solar powered narrow boat, playing accordion, foraging for wild food or making up stories and writing them down.
Over the next six month you can follow her adventures and insights relating to sustainable energy and ideas sharing on the National Trust Places blog.