The 46MW Landmead solar farm, in East Hanney near Abingdon, is built on low-grade farmland used for grazing sheep, which will remain along with new wildflowers to be planted as part of efforts to improve the site’s biodiversity.

In October, Liz Truss, the environment secretary, attacked solar power projects built on farmland, saying they were hitting food production and announced that farmers would lose agricultural subsidies if they allowed solar panels on farmland.

Truss’s intervention comes after a decision earlier in the year by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to bring forward the end of the current subsidy regime for large solar farms, with ministers saying they wanted to see more solar on building’s rooftops and less mounted on the ground.

Toddington Harper, chief executive of Belectric, the company that co-owns Landmead with First Solar, said the changes did not mean the end of such large-scale projects.

“I think the changes to the subsidy scheme have certainly made life more difficult. Having said that, though they have changed the ROC scheme [Renewable Obligation Certificates, the subsidies being phased out], within the Contracts for Difference [the new subsidy scheme], there is still an opportunity to deliver projects like this for the UK,” he said.

Harper pointed to Decc surveys that show solar is hugely popular with the public and argued that solar farms – which have been opposed in parts of the country, in some cases by high-profile opponents such as comedian Griff Rhys Jones – had a low impact compared with other forms of energy.

“The wonderful thing about solar energy is, from a picture, it looks like a big change, but most people don’t travel around in helicopters. If you are at ground level you can’t even see the solar farm behind the hedge, because it’s 2.2m high. People driving by wouldn’t even know it’s there,” he said.

The company has 10 solar farms in the UK, which it says are enough to power 40,000 homes a year, with another 10 in progress, though not on the scale of Landmead which is about 5MW larger than the UK’s previous biggest solar farm. About 200 people were employed during the project’s construction phase.

The new farm is built on grade three agricultural land – the middle ranking out of the 1-5 scale for quality of soil – which the company says has a history of not draining well and therefore not good for growing crops.

“With Liz Truss, one week she was saying shouldn’t take away land from agriculture use, which isn’t what we’re doing. Then a week later, she published a report about bees, saying they should be treated like Premiership footballers, and that’s exactly what we do [on our solar farms]. We have beehives on our solar farms and plant a lot of wild flowers,” said Harper.

Landmead will not carry the title of largest for long – it will be eclipsed by a 49.9MW solar farm at a former RAF site in Norfolk that has been given the planning green light, with construction starting in 2015.

Adam Vaughan

This article first appeared on the guardian

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