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Wickham Hall solar farm: There's a bigger picture at stake than just the view

by Andrew Urquhart, on behalf of the Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group

Solar farm plans for Wickham Hall, on the outskirts of Bishop's Stortford, were rejected by Uttlesford District Council, but most of the site falls in East Herts, where the district council has yet to decide.

The Bishop’s Stortford Climate Group recognises that this is not a straightforward planning decision, but we believe East Herts Council should approve the application.

We all have walked, run, cycled or in some way enjoyed the countryside on which the solar farm would be built. But the key issue is the need to increase supplies of domestic renewable energy.

Solar farms are one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways of tackling the urgent problems of:

  • Fuel prices – we need UK energy that is free from fossil fuel price shocks
  • Carbon emissions – we are teetering on the brink of climate catastrophe and the world needs to halve carbon emissions by 2030.

Solar farms are the cheapest form of new generation in the UK, following significant cost reductions in the last few years. Solar is now much cheaper than new gas generation, particularly at current prices, around half the cost of new nuclear.

Solar energy is highly reliable, though it is of course variable with the sunlight. Solar power in the UK directly reduces gas generation and works well with wind power to ensure supply meets demand as much as possible, without having to resort to expensive and inefficient storage.

If councils approve all the schemes currently proposed across the UK, this would more than offset the UK’s imports of gas from Russia.

Solar farms can be built much more quickly than the alternative low-carbon energy source: new nuclear power plants. There are many issues with new nuclear too; a huge impact on their local environment and nuclear waste.

Wickham Hall solar farm plans (56705169)
Wickham Hall solar farm plans (56705169)

The obvious question is: why not put solar on rooftops instead?

We strongly support rooftop solar and have campaigned to get panels on all new local developments. It’s much cheaper to install this when houses and commercial buildings are first built so it’s absurd that developers have put so few in Stortford Fields and on houses in Bishop’s Stortford South. We believe that these new developments should all have been net-zero carbon.

Retrofitting solar PV is not so simple and the financial returns can be more uncertain. Google maps shows us that only a small proportion of local buildings have solar panels.

Home systems are usually around 3 kW capacity so we would need around 17,000 houses to equal the output from the proposed 50 MW development at Wickham Hall.

Nationally, our government is looking for 70 GW of solar power by 2030 to meet our demand for electricity. We can’t get to this level if we only rely on individual households or businesses to add solar to their roofs. We need some land for solar farms if we are to move away from our damaging use of fossil fuels.

Wickham Hall from above (56705185)
Wickham Hall from above (56705185)

Food security is another concern, especially just now. Clearly this scheme will take some land, but in context it’s smaller than the combined area of local golf courses, which obviously provide neither food security nor energy security.

Modern agriculture is highly reliant on low-cost energy, and fertiliser prices are spiking because the manufacturing process uses natural gas. Farmers are warning they will either plant less or use less fertiliser, so production could go down, just when we need it most. Given time, fertiliser production can be decarbonised, but for now, we can ease the pressure by reducing the amount of gas we need for electricity. So, yes, food security is critical, but energy security comes first.

We are also facing a biodiversity crisis. Populations of insects are collapsing due to habitat loss and pesticides. We have already lost 97% of semi-natural grasslands and in Hertfordshire the loss of rare grassland species has been severe. Intensive agriculture and housing development are largely to blame.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has said that we need 30% of land to be managed for nature if we are to stop this decline, but it’s hard to see where this land can come from. The solar farm presents a rare opportunity to create around 100 hectares (247 acres) of new grassland, without the need for agricultural fertilisers and pesticides, and with wildlife corridors linking two important woodlands. With the right planning conditions and management, the solar farm could be a major boost to our local wildlife, particularly the grassland species that are most at risk.

Finally, there is the question of landscape impact. At one end, the solar farm will be next to the new A120 bypass, hardly the most beautiful view. For most people driving by, the view can easily be screened with new hedges to reduce the impact. But clearly there is a visual impact for anyone using the footpaths or living in rural houses, with views of fields.

The views beyond will remain, of course, and around the panels walkers will see grassland buzzing with life in the summer, hopefully more birds and brown hares running about under them.

Overall, we will need to get used to the look of solar panels in the countryside. We need to reduce our use of imported fossil fuels and to tackle climate change. The longer we wait, the harder it will be. We can’t afford to turn this solar farm down just because it affects the view.

READ ALSO Wickham Hall solar farm: Developer ponders appeal after Uttlesford District Council refuses planning permission

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