Energy has always come from the landscape and had an impact on it. So, with solar in the ascendancy, LDA Design’s Ben Croot sets out just what its landscape legacy might be.
“With plummeting prices and increasing efficiency, solar is now a huge part of a secure, stable and affordable energy mix for the UK. So, ensuring local people are locked into the decision-making process for new sites is more important than ever before.”
Ben Croot, Associate, LDA Design
Wood for the kiln, water for the mill, hills for the windmill … since the beginning of time, people have used natural resources and topography for energy, and every use remains recorded in the landscape.
Some more than others, of course. Coal mining leaves land ecologically wrecked and restoration can take decades. The first large forest to be planted in England in a thousand years was designed to repair the landscape in the Midlands once the mines had shut. In other parts, the scars on the earth stay. But the legacy from energy generation can enrich the landscape too, whether it is the world heritage site of New Lanark on the Clyde or the Grade I listed Outwood Windmill in Surrey.
As our energy mix in the UK shifts to renewables, what will the landscape legacy be?
Although solar and wind stumbled slightly over a still, grey summer they remain a massively important part of a stable, secure and affordable energy future for the UK. In 2020, they contributed 43% of our supply and this is only set to grow as technological changes make them smarter and cheaper.
Solar’s rising is dramatic. The price of solar electricity has fallen by 89% in the last decade, and now experiments with a crystal called perovskite in panel construction could see energy outputs increase by as much as a third. Tracking arrays that follow the sun’s arc and bi-facial panels which absorb reflected sunlight on the underside will also make solar more efficient and cost-effective.
All good news. Better still is that when a solar farm’s operational life ends, all the fabric can be fully dismantled, and the land returned to its former use.
While community support for new solar farms is more essential than ever, all land use has consequences, not least the extent to which one use precludes others. Decision-making needs to be democratic and inclusive, arriving at a full picture of what a new farm will mean for local people.
The national energy policy provides some context for that picture. The energy from solar farms is normally fed into the national grid because a high voltage connection does not allow local supply. With the UK aiming for electricity generation to be fossil fuel free by 2035, low-cost renewables need to become the backbone of the system.
We need to treat the land designated for a solar farm like any parcel of land should be treated – planned and designed to provide multi-faceted benefits, not a single purpose.
Having helped to deliver one of the UK’s first solar farms in 2011 and worked in this sector ever since, LDA Design is familiar with many of the issues which concern local communities.
Bringing the community in
Issues can start with choice of location. Solar farms, which may be granted a temporary consent for 35 years, are often on greenfield sites. This is both because there are very few large brownfield sites, but also because energy security has nothing like the same values attributed to it as housing. So, the owners of brownfield sites are far more likely to want to sell their land for housing development than lease it for renewable energy. Because solar farms need proximity to grid connection, proposals are usually for land at the edge of settlement, and that land can be within the Green Belt. This is often valued by communities as greenspace on the doorstep.
Issues may also include proposed removal of hedgerows and trees which affects how the site looks short to medium term. Technological advances in storage are important for the future of renewables but it does mean that more buildings are needed on site to house batteries.
So, working through community concerns together and ensuring that the site benefits local people is key to building a collective understanding and providing a sense of justice. This means treating the land like any parcel of land should be treated – planned and designed to provide multi-faceted benefits, not a single purpose.
A positive legacy
Sites can be 400 acres or more, but often the most meaningful community benefit does actually come from the landscape interventions possible at this scale. Solar farms are now commonly achieving 40% – 50% habitat Biodiversity Net Gain, with the addition of up to a hundred hectares of wildflower, woodland and grassland. Forest schools, nature areas, orchards, and new permissive paths can bring nature far closer to local people.
Also, a solar farm shields agricultural land from the normal cycle of intensive farming. The long-term degradation of soil and loss of biodiversity that characterises most contemporary farming is halted for a generation and the land can recover, with low intensity grazing under panels still continuing. One agricultural site reached 150% habitat improvement. All these figures are way above the 10% identified in the Environment Bill.
So solar is part of a long history of harnessing the power of nature, and although it can tread lightly it can also leave its mark when the panels and buildings have gone, in a myriad of positive ways. Finding solutions in nature to the crises of affordable energy security, climate and biodiversity loss, and enabling communities to be part of those solutions, has to be the way forward.