It seems Britain is fast developing something of a love-affair with Solar Farms – those large, utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) installations that can generate 5 or 10 MW of electricity. There are some 18 schemes capable of generating 5MW or more in Wales alone, with a further 34 under construction or in the planning, with more than 400 others on the cards for the rest of the UK.
It’s great news for Britain’s long-term renewable energy goals, but the problem is that they need around 25 acres of land for every 5MW of installed generating capacity – enough for about 1,500 homes – and that makes solar farms pretty land-hungry. With former industrial ‘brownfield’ sites of up to 100 acres or so being fairly rare, that generally means most of them end up being built in rural areas.
At a time when recent research suggests that we may need an extra 5 million acres of farmland to feed ourselves by 2030, and most of our wildlife has been declining over the past half-century, chiefly as a result of habitat loss, that doesn’t seem to bode just so well for the British countryside.
Or perhaps it does.
Providing New Habitats
Although solar farms need these huge tracts of land to house their PV units, because they are mounted on posts, around 95% of the ground remains undisturbed, and once the construction work is finished, there is little further human activity on-site apart from occasional maintenance visits. With only around 30% of the surface actually overshadowed by the panels themselves, and an installation lifespan of 20 to 25 years, the country’s solar farms could provide valuable new protected habitats for some of our most endangered wildlife.
That’s certainly the opinion of many leading conservation charities and industry players, including the RSBP, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Eden Project, Solar Trade Association, Solarcentury, Lark Energy, Juwi Renewable and the NFU, who are backing a range of new initiatives to use the land around solar farms to boost biodiversity.
That cannot come too soon. According to the ‘State of Nature Report’ – a bench-marking assessment of 3,148 native species compiled by 25 organisations representing the main groups of wildlife – British biodiversity is under threat, with 60% of the plants and animals monitored having declined over the last 50 years.
With the launch of the BRE National Solar Centre’s ‘Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments’ in April, conservation charities and the solar industry now hope that careful management of solar farm sites could soon be helping to start turning the clock back.
The details of how solar farms need to be managed to improve biodiversity are likely to be different for each site, and operators will need to draw up specific plans, in consultation with the relevant wildlife organisations, to develop a programme to achieve an appropriate outcome. Once such a plan has been drawn up, a good monitoring regime will also be required throughout the lifetime of the project to see how well the biodiversity goals are being met.
Much of this will, obviously, depend on the types of wildlife naturally likely to be found in the area, and the environmental conditions of the site itself, but some of the schemes that are already underway give a good idea of the sort of thing that can be done.
The RSPB applied its specialist knowledge to ensure that the land around the new Uphouse Farm solar PV installation in Fakenham has been specifically designed to meet the changing seasonal needs of farmland birds.
Areas of nectar-rich flowers including clovers, vetches, lucerne and birdsfoot trefoil, have been sown to attract insects, and so provide the high-bug diet needed during the breeding season. Fine grasses such as common bent, smooth stalked meadow grass and fescues have been planted to give nesting material, and seed bearing plants such as millet, mustard, spring wheat and barley have been sown around the site to yield winter food.
As well as catering for the birds, this regime also provides an ideal habitat for a range of local mammals, insects, insect larvae and spiders, helping to establish a healthy and biodiverse food chain on the site.
Another project involves Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and one of the small number of planned solar farms on brownfield sites – a parcel of Trust-owned land adjacent to an industrial estate, which is home to a small population of great crested newts. Having formed Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy as a community benefit society, and raised the estimated £1.2 million cost in record time, the newts were cleared under licence from Natural England, ahead of construction beginning in February of this year.
Once the solar installation is finished, the newts will be able to return, and, along with a number of other locally present protected species, enjoy the benefits of an enhanced environment which is to be managed to provide a range of wildlife-friendly habitats, including wildflower meadows and a new pond.
The Trust’s own sheep will also be used to provide low-intensity grazing – a low-impact and cost-effective method of grassland management that will further help increase the conservation value of the site.
In the end, it’s really all about trying to create suitable habitats for flora and fauna, where they can get on with their lives – and hopefully build up their numbers – with as little interference from human activity as possible.
If it all sounds to have more than a bit of a familiar ring to it, that’s probably because it does. In many ways, it’s what large numbers of farmers throughout Britain have been doing for years with set-aside, and countless environmentally conscious UK households have achieved in a small way with the ‘wildlife corner’ in their gardens.
The big difference is, however, that all those 100 acre solar farms up and down the length of the countryside make for a really, really big corner! Fingers crossed, if it all goes according to plan, it’ll soon be making an equally big difference to the plight of our wildlife too.