UK’s largest community-owned solar farm supported by local councils
Plans to build a 120-acre solar farm on the border between England and Wales are a step closer to fruition, after councillors gave their unanimous support.
The 30MW project would exist as a community-owned asset; shares would be sold to local people and businesses who would be its co-owners. Any surplus revenue would go towards funding further community projects, which would not necessarily need to relate to energy.
The solar farm could come online in 2025 and operate for up to 40 years.
Because the project site, on the outskirts of Chester, includes English and Welsh land, two planning applications had to be submitted.
For the English side of things, Cheshire West and Chester Council’s planning committee members have unanimously backed the project, according to the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service.
The Welsh Government still needs to make a final decision. Input from Flintshire County Council will be used but, ultimately, due to the project’s size, the Welsh Government’s planning inspectorate is responsible for making the final decision.
Wales is notably aiming to meet 100% of its electricity consumption with renewables by 2035.
It has this month set up a new publicly owned energy company to help support the development of new community-owned renewable energy capacity as it works towards this goal. The nation is also looking to Westminster for new interventions that would help it to more rapidly increase its offshore wind capacity.
Green belt impact
Developer New Energy Wales has assured those already using the Cheshire part of the land for sheep grazing that they can continue doing so once the ground-mounted solar panels are in place. Councillors have been told by experts that the land is not of high quality for agricultural production, meaning the impact on the green belt will be minimal.
A survey of biodiversity and agricultural productivity at solar farms was conducted by trade body Solar Energy UK earlier this year. It revealed that “the low intensity of management on solar farms, as well as the range of habitats present”, can deliver biodiversity maintenance or net-gain provided that developers properly manage the sites.
Regarding agricultural impact, which proved to be a key energy-related talking point during the Conservative Party leadership race last year, only 22% of farms in England have onsite solar at present. Solar panels currently cover around 0.08% of total land across the UK, or 0.1% of UK farmland, only half the size of the Isle of Wight, according to Solar Energy UK.
The UK Government has dropped its argument that solar is always bad for food security under Rishi Sunak. It is now aiming to grow national solar capacity to 70GW by 2035. It set this target earlier this year following the advice of the Skidmore Net-Zero Review, and has subsequently set up a new industry taskforce.
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