The UK Government’s withdrawal of subsidy payments for solar in April 2019 led to a period of market adjustment and subsequently the emergence of what is now termed large-scale subsidy-free solar. In the absence of subsidies, for solar schemes exporting the generated electricity to the grid network, project scale is now important, with developers typically seeking schemes covering 100+ acres. Large-scale subsidy-free solar comes with its challenges, and the impact of planning constraints is amplified by the scale of development. National Planning Policy sets the parameters for development, but whilst in some areas policy is clear cut, others are open to interpretation, increasing planning risk as to what may gain consent.
As it stands, solar projects over 50 megawatts (MW) in England must secure approval as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP), a process administered by the Planning Inspectorate instead of local planning authorities. Similarly in Wales, solar projects over 10MW are now required to go through the new Developments of National Significance (DNS) process, a process administered by the Planning Inspectorate Wales. In both cases the process can be drawn-out and unwieldy for the uninitiated, but provides competitive advantage to those with the appetite.
Plans for the largest solar farm in the UK, a 350MW (890 acres) development at Cleve Hill Solar Park in Kent were granted a Development Consent Order through the NSIP process in May 2020, and since then two further schemes are ongoing; 150MW (555 acres) Little Crow Solar Park near Scunthorpe which is currently in examination, and the 500MW (1400 acres) Longfield Solar Farm near Chelmsford which is expected to be submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in the latter half of 2021. In Wales the 63MW Elwy Solar Farm, which was negotiated by Carter Jonas, is going through the DNS process and an application was submitted to Welsh Government this month.
The increase in solar NSIPs is driven by one of the key characteristics in the current solar market; economies of scale. Most solar farms either recently granted planning consent or currently in the planning process sit in the 30MW to 49.9MW range as this scale of development is widely considered to be needed to make subsidy-free schemes financially viable. Development costs, application fees and overall planning risk for such schemes are significantly lower than for NSIPs. Consequently it is almost inconceivable that a 51MW solar park would ever be proposed under the current NSIP regime owing to the higher costs associated in preparing and submitting an NSIP application and the increased planning risk involved. To justify the increased costs and risk associated with an NSIP, the scale of development needs to be large enough to provide a level of return reflecting the higher risk, taking into account the proposed grid connection as well.
Last year, a change to the NSIP and DNS regimes meant that battery energy storage developments over 50MW in England and up to 350MW in Wales would no longer be considered NSIP or DNS, and therefore gain consent through the local planning system. In England, this change has stimulated debate on the NSIP thresholds for solar farms and whether they should be changed.
The 50MW threshold has undoubtedly created fierce demand over the last few years and competition for sites and grid capacity keeps growing. The developing market for large-scale subsidy free solar and the importance of this technology is about to be reflected in National Planning Policy as solar now joins wind turbines in being recognised as ‘Essential Infrastructure’ in the flood risk vulnerability classifications in the latest draft revisions. This change sees solar become an appropriate use in flood zones 2 and 3. Further tests need to be passed for a scheme to be approved in flood zones 3a and 3b; it must be demonstrated that the proposed development will provide wider sustainability benefits to the community that outweigh flood risk, and that it will be safe for its lifetime, without increasing flood risk elsewhere and where possible reduce flood risk overall.
Planning constraints for large-scale subsidy-free solar also include the usual suspects; green belt, landscape and visual impact, ecology, archaeology and agricultural land classification.
For a solar development to be considered an acceptable use in the green belt, very special circumstances need to be demonstrated. This will only be proven if the benefits of the proposal demonstrably outweigh the potential harm and inappropriateness of the development to the green belt.
There is an emphasis on planning for climate change within National Planning Policy which seeks to help increase the use and supply of renewable and low carbon heat and energy. It is recognised that large-scale renewable energy developments such as solar farms will have an impact on the landscape character and setting of an area, so proposals for large-scale subsidy-free solar need to satisfactorily address and mitigate any adverse impacts by appropriately siting and screening the development. Solar farms are far less visually intrusive than wind farms, but cumulative landscape and visual impacts do still need to be considered as part of any development proposals.
In terms of agricultural land classification, National Planning Policy states that the economic benefits of Best and Most Versatile (BMV) agricultural land should be taken into account, with preference being given to areas of poorer quality land. BMV land is defined as being classified as Grades 1, 2 and 3a. A number of factors should be taken into account by Local Planning Authorities when determining applications, including encouraging the effective use of land by focussing solar farms on previously developed and non-agricultural land, provided that it is not of high environmental value and, where a proposal involves greenfield land, considering whether poorer quality land has been used in preference to higher quality land and whether the proposal allows for continued agricultural use and/ or encourages biodiversity improvements around arrays.
However, a recent decision on a solar farm in Skegness where Anesco are the developers, saw planning consent given to a development on agricultural land that was classified as Grade 1, 2 and 3a. The loss of Grade 1 land was strongly objected to by Lincolnshire County Council but this did not preclude the development from being approved locally. This case provides an example of where the wider sustainability benefits of the development outweighed the impact of taking Grade 1 land out of agricultural use for the 40-year operational life of the solar farm.
National Planning Policy recognises the temporary and time-limited nature of solar farm development and planning conditions can be imposed to ensure installations are removed once no longer in operation and the land is restored to its previous use.
If you are a renewable energy developer or owner with land that you consider potentially suitable for solar farm development and require specialist planning advice for any of your proposals, whether it be matters considered in this article or any other aspects of energy planning, then the team at Carter Jonas are always on hand to offer advice.
Please contact George Oldroyd on 07765 745103 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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