This spring it was almost as though there was a gold rush around here, but the gold was a very generous public subsidy for private landowners to build solar farms; and the subsidy magically vanished on the 31st March this year. The gold rush was over. And many hundreds perhaps thousands of hectares of land across the south-west of England were covered in shiny new solar panels.
The subsidies, which had been more generous previously, had led to a one thousand percent increase in the area covered by solar farms across England in the last five years, from 10ha in 2009 to over 1000ha in early 2015. Out of the 380 solar farms which are generating electricity, an amazing 190 (data here) or exactly one half were built in the south west of England (which I count as including Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Avon, Gloucestershire, Dorset and Wiltshire.) No wonder it feels like solar farms have popped up all over the place down here. Another 25 farms have planning permission in the south-west, out of 77 across England and Wales. This includes the proposed Rampisham Down Solar Farm, about which I have written on many occasions.
It cannot be any surprise to anyone that this level of industrial development (for that is what solar farms are) on previously agricultural land was going to create discontent in the south-west, an area built on a long and fine tradition of discontent. This is partly because of the visual impact of solar farms on the landscape. They are shiny, they are metallic, they have high security fences and cctv cameras. What they look like, more than anything else, are detention camps for solar panels. It only takes on solar farm covering say 20 acres, in an open landscape, to alter how that landscape looks, or feels from nearby viewpoints. This is regardless of whether the solar farms are a good thing, producing renewable electricity.
And it therefore should come as no further surprise that Farming minister and Cornish MP George Eustice should reflect that concern in comments made recently at the Devon Show, where he said solar farms were “trashing the countryside in Cornwall”
“There is a public policy issue here that politicians have t0 address and that is the impact of renewables on the beautiful landscape of the South West. Some parts have certainly got far too many solar farms.”
Eustice, I am pleased to say, also noted with concern the massive increase in the area of Maize in the south-west, which is grown to feed anaerobic digester plants to produce biogas. I have also written about this scam before. Renewable energy this most certainly is not.
Needless to say the Country Landowners and Business Association hit back hard against their good friend at Defra. CLA’s Ross Murray said
“It is unacceptable for on the one hand Government policy to promote investment in solar power and at the same time ministers to talk about stopping solar panels because they are trashing the countryside. We need a policy that gives businesses the ability to make plans”.
On the one hand I can sympathise with the CLA – society does need landowners to invest in the long term, where that investment can benefit society. Politicians chopping and changing their minds on policies which have multi-decadal implications for land management is deeply unhelpful. But then the landowners are not forced to chase after the latest subsidies, are they? And this is exactly what they have been doing with solar farms. As I wrote previously, landowners can get £1000 an acre per annum to rent land to a solar farm developer. As a 25MW farm covers about 50 acres, you can do the calculations. This is an astonishing amount of money by any standards, especially as it is being paid by taxpayers. Unlike farming, where the subsidy is around £80 per acre, and then there is the risk that the harvest fails, or your livestock succumb to disease, the return on a solar farm is guaranteed, for doing nothing. Pretty much all the money goes to the solar farm developer and the landowner, but the local community benefits very little, apart from some token voluntary payments into community funds.
As one way to get communities to support the production of renewable energy in their areas, DECC have been encouraging community buy-in to things like solar farms. This means that local community members or groups can invest directly in a local solar farm and reap financial benefits from it, as well as being supplied with renewably sourced electricity. This was something which DECC seemed keen to promote, but sadly the Treasury had other ideas and earlier this year removed key financial incentives making community-led energy schemes much less viable. Was this an example of Osborne’s heavies putting the knife in to the Lib Dems in the run up to the election? History will eventually tell us what happened. Nevertheless the Solar Trade seemed keen to promote the idea of community involvement in solar farms and amended their Ten Solar Commandments to include “thou shalt involve thy local community (where commercially viable)”.
Note the caveat, because let’s not forget that for all the good words about renewable energy, many solar farms are built by subsidy-driven solar farmers, such as British Solar Renewables. Perhaps, sensing that the subsidy stream for solar farms is now drying up, they have rebranded themselves to British Renewables (no solar).
Community Heat and Power
Now with profit-driven businesses like BSR around, one would hope that there were independent sources of advice and support for local communities considering entering into some sort of financial arrangements with developers of solar farms. Community Heat and Power, about whom I have written before, put themselves forward as providing that independent expert advice.
“CH&P is an independant (sic) organisation which can listen to you” they say to local community groups, who may be opposing the development of a solar farm, or trying to extract community benefits from a solar farm developer.
I have been trying to find out who owns CH&P to determine just how independent they are. Last year they were owned by Community Utilities Limited, as I explained in my previous blog, but it wasnt possible to tell who owned CUL. Now that accounts have been filed I have a bit more information.Although the directors of CUL, Hannah Lovegrove and Julian Brooks, own 5% of CUL shares each, 90% of the company is owned by a Galion Consulting limited, which is a new company as of last August. Galion Consulting Limited is in turn wholly owned by Galion Holdings Limited. Galion Holdings is a new limited company with one Director, Angus MacDonald, and 2 shares worth £1 each. Once again as it’s a new company, it’s not possible to tell who owns the shares. It may be a coincidence that Angus MacDonald is the main shareholder in the very similarly named Galion Homes Limited. MacDonald was doing housing developments before he got interested in solar farms.
Angus MacDonald is Chief Executive of British Solar Renewables.