UK solar farm pipeline: a chance to shine for local authorities

Bliss was it in that dawn of 2019 to be alive when almost 300 local authorities declared a climate emergency, egged on by a broad swathe of the UK green movement. But where are all those enlightened councillors and campaigners now that the energy crisis compels action consistent with net-zero ambition?

According to the UK government’s Renewable Energy Planning Database, updated in April, there are over 200 large-scale solar applications awaiting planning permission. They add up to almost 7GW of capacity, more than all the solar energy installed in the last six years.

Land tenure has been agreed for these projects;  grid connection logistics negotiated and private capital allocated, without calling for taxpayer subsidy. Solar farm construction is relatively quick, measured in months. Low cost renewable technology is universally perceived to be part of the solution to market dysfunction and national energy security.

All these emergency response boxes are ticked. If this was wartime, work on 200 solar farms would start tomorrow. A coherent 2022 British Energy Security Strategy would have pulled strings to free up this pipeline. At very least it would stipulate that the public benefit of renewable energy, already recognised for its contribution to sustainable development in the National Planning Policy Framework, should be ratcheted up in value, when set against the impact of a solar farm.

The government’s published energy strategy falls at this first hurdle, failing to comprehend that an emergency will remain an emergency if there is no immediate response. Instead it clutches at the straws of nuclear and offshore wind technologies, out of sight of voters and below the radar of the current electoral cycle.

There’s a rare opportunity here for local authorities to step into the leadership vacuum and get the job done. So many Councils are frustrated in pursuing ambitious climate goals by their dependence on central government policy and funding. A solar farm is one of very few high impact solutions over which a local authority has the necessary powers. Almost all of the applications in the UK pipeline fall within the 50MW capacity limit for permission to be granted through the local planning process.

There’s work to be done; many of these projects are bogged down by a high volume of public objections; others by technical planning squabbles. Councillors should remind their officers that climate policy demands consideration in every function of the local authority. Above all, councillors should inspire public support for good quality solar farm applications by standing up for their own policies, calling out the nimby element, and the unfounded myths that are prevalent in solar farm objections.

I have to report that in my own district this is not happening, despite a dominant Lib Dem administration, backing a tough 2030 carbon neutral goal. I can’t recall a single word of Councillor support for any one of the six solar farm applications submitted since our local climate emergency declaration.

If you use this word, be prepared for the consequences

It’s hard to present evidence of silence but I fear that this timidity is the dominant national picture. Climate Emergency UK has recently announced plans to assess councils on the actual implementation of climate action, as opposed to intent. I would welcome a metric that examines effective communication of the scale of local energy generation that grid decarbonisation by 2035 will compel. It makes no sense that only a handful of local authorities, led by Cornwall Council, have proposed a clear target for local generation, expressed as a percentage of local electricity consumption.

National environmental campaign groups have also been conspicuous by their silence on solar farms and need to get their act together. Earlier this month over 30 green groups, led by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, signed a joint civil society statement proposing that the UK government’s promised Energy Bill should “double down on the potential of cheap renewables to reduce all our energy bills.” How many of these groups have encouraged their members to support solar farm applications? How could CPRE have been invited to sign this statement when its branch in my county posted 19 pages of objections to a recent local solar farm application, supplemented by over 50 pages from one of its trustees?

Failure by environmental activists to express wholehearted support for utility-scale solar has contributed to the open door for central government to fall into the arms of the oil, gas and nuclear industries.

Reticence to endorse land-hungry solar technology is understandable, but there are two inescapable realities.

First, that any Councillor, activist or campaign group supporting an ultra-ambitious net-zero deadline of 2030 has no choice. Such accelerated decarbonisation depends for its credibility on advocating radical non-incremental measures appropriate to an emergency, in the full sense of the word. People will respond positively to courageous articulation of tough choices, such as solar farms.

Second, it is naive to cling to the belief that rooftop solar installations can achieve UK goals for solar generation in a 2050 net zero scenario, let alone 2030. The 6th Carbon Budget recognises this, suggesting a land requirement of 150,000 hectares for utility solar. Green groups should do more to explain the mathematics and constraints of rooftop solar.

The sudden imperative of UK energy security is a game-changing gift to advocacy of low cost renewables at scale. Let’s not allow a good crisis to go to waste.