Fringe Box



Letter: Plan for Solar Farm is Not Good for Our Environment

Published on: 30 May, 2023
Updated on: 12 Jun, 2023

Photo updated. AONB / AGLV / green belt land west of Blackwell Farm where a new road for the proposed solar farm is planned.

From: John Oliver

Save Surrey Countryside

We have, belatedly, heard about the University of Surrey’s (UoS) proposal to place a solar panel array on its land at Blackwell Farm, off The Hog’s Back.

The “About us” page of UoS’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability starts with the laudable statement that “The Centre for Environment and Sustainability (CES) is an internationally-acclaimed centre of excellence on sustainable development.”

This might well be the case.  However, perhaps the centre should send its papers to the UoS central administration, as part of its education programme.

UoS has submitted a planning application (22/P/02178) to Guildford Borough Council (GBC) requesting planning permission, for 35 years, for an array of solar panels which will provide part of the campus’s energy needs.  We understand this is due to be considered by the Planning Committee on June 21.  All good, so far.

However, UoS is proposing to site the array on Blackwell Farm, just off The Hog’s Back.  The land that it proposes to use is Grade 2 and 3 agricultural land.  So, it would deprive the borough, the county and the nation of yet more food-producing land.

This is concerning.  We may have noticed the shortages on supermarket shelves and the heavy cost, to the less well off, of food inflation which is running at 19.1 per cent.

Still, one could argue that solar power-generating equipment in one area might be more beneficial, long term, than the loss of potential food production.  We will never know the answer to that.

What we do know, though, is that UoS has over 30 buildings in the research park and 100 on the main campus.  It also has vast car park areas.  Given the government’s aim that developed/brownfield sites should be used first for such arrays, it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to realise that the buildings and the car parks (ie panels elevated above the car parks) should be the first port of call for UoS’s solar panels.

Car park solar arrays are embraced in other places.  So why not at UoS?  They provide shade for vehicles and people alike in hot, rainy and snowy weather.  In hot weather, instead of heat being absorbed and released into the surrounding area from buildings and large areas of bitumen, giving a “heat island” effect (local heat hotspots), the energy is absorbed and converted into electricity.  

In addition, cars parked in sunshine can, according to the University of Arizona, lose up to 1 litre of petrol a week.  It doesn’t sound a lot.  However, multiply that by the hundreds of cars parked at UoS and it begins to add up to a lot of petrol.  Yes, many cars are now electricallypowered, but petrol-driven is still in the majority.

The Surrey Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) says, in writing to GBC about putting the panels on the present UoS developed site, “The obstacles preventing on site provision are unconvincing and the analysis seems to be influenced by a desire to demonstrate obstacles rather than be creative and positive. For instance, besides solar panels on the roofs of the many buildings and perhaps on the ground, such measures as providing solar panels over the extensive car parks within the university would seem to be achievable, as has been done elsewhere”.

UoS holds up its hands in horror – claiming brown field development will be more expensive and that they will lose some car park spaces.  So much for commitment to sustainability.

Let’s not forget the wildlife.  Whilst much focus is placed on the climate change crisis, there is also a biodiversity crisis.  The UK is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of biodiversity loss.

We have lost around 60 per cent plus of our flying insect population alone.  We have lost 73 million birds since 1970.  The Natural History Museum says that the hedgehog population has plummeted by 75 per cent since the turn of the century.  Plant species are disappearing right, left and centre.  According to Surrey County Council, it expects “972 species of this county’s wildlife [to] die out by 2050”.

This solar panel array and its cabling would be pushed onto land where there are, apart from the more abundant species, five bird species that appear on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (skylark, yellowhammer, linnet, mistle thrush, and song thrush).

What is sustainable about displacing these creatures, and fragmenting or destroying their habitats, particularly when UoS has so many buildings and open brownfield spaces it could use?

Incidentally, regarding cabling, UoS states in its application, “The proposed solar facility will be connected to an existing substation on the university campus at Stag Hill”.  This is another reason for establishing the array on the campus site, closer to the substation.

Throw into the mix, the effect on the Surrey Hills AONB, the fact that the siteruns alongside Backside Common (a Site of Nature Conservation Importance which “provides a habitat for nightingales” according to the Woodland Trust), the site is within a Biodiversity Opportunity Area (specially identified for conserving and enhancing biodiversity), the ruination of the bridleway that crosses this land, the proposal for what would be dangerous access onto the A31 (the Hog’s Back) and the visual impact of the array, and we have environmental and social vandalism on display.

Why is this happening now?  Natural England is considering approval to the extension of the boundary of the Surrey Hills AONB and will decide this later in the year.  The extension is a virtual certainty and is likely to include the land at Blackwell Farm.

UoS would almost certainly fail to obtain permission for the solar panel array, once the land was included in the AONB.  Natural England is unlikely to include the land in the extension, if planning permission is granted for the UoS scheme.  So, is it just coincidence that UoS has made this move ahead of the Natural England decision?

In these days when planning duplicity is rife, I worry about a potential scenario of planning permission being given (ie the land being excluded from the AONB extension), the solar panel plan then being dropped, leaving the inclusion of the land in the AONB impossible, and exposing the land available for different developmental proposals.

It is interesting that the application does not appear to include the cabling.  Why not?

The application says, “A separate planning application will be submitted once the details of the cable route have been finalised”.  We ask, does UoS actually mean, “once the Planning Committee has decided the application”?

If planning approval is given, will UoS actually go ahead with the solar array given that approval might effectively block the land from being included in the AONB?  This would leave the land open to other planning proposals.  The approval for cabling would not then be necessary.

Approval would also establish the principle for any different, future proposal, that an access road onto The Hog’s Back from this location is acceptable.

This is not just a problem for the Hog’s Back area.  If approved, it acts as a precedent for other landowners elsewhere in the borough to argue and do the same – ie use greenfield sites before brownfield sites.  We should all oppose this move by UoS.

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Responses to Letter: Plan for Solar Farm is Not Good for Our Environment

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    May 30, 2023 at 9:42 pm

    As usual John covers all the points with clarity and detail.

  2. Mark Stamp Reply

    May 30, 2023 at 10:59 pm

    Mr Oliver has some valid concerns here, most notably why this is not being done on the university campus first, especially in regard to heat island effects where the university has world class expertise.

    What I will disagree on are the claims about biodiversity loss. Studies have shown that a solar farms can provide significant biodiversity gains when paired with a land management plan compared to leaving land as agricultural.

    In addition, after the lifetime of the solar farm the land can relatively easily be returned to agriculture with a better soil quality having been left fallow for a number of years.

  3. Stuart Barnes Reply

    May 30, 2023 at 11:15 pm

    Is there no end to the appalling vandalism being inflicted on our poor little country and its remaining green spaces?

  4. Lisa Wright Reply

    May 31, 2023 at 10:37 am

    Additionally, why is the University of Surrey taking more farmland for development when they have already, with the assistance of GBC, successfully removed a huge bulk of land from the green belt in 2019 when the Local Plan was approved.

    Strikes me as greedy and completely unnecessary.

    Who will use all this green energy when there are no students at the University in the best, sunniest days between July and September?

    Why does the university profess to be a forward thinking, sustainable and green organisation but continue to destroy the environment around it? As always, it’s about money and how much they can make.

  5. Mark Bray-Parry Reply

    June 1, 2023 at 8:49 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Oliver.

    At the very least, the application should be rejected until the disruption/impact of the cable routine has been assessed, particularly while there is an alternative location closer to the substation that can be utilised.

  6. Peter Elliott Reply

    June 1, 2023 at 10:41 am

    The law regarding solar farms on green belt land is surely quite clear. It states that they are ”inappropriate development” that can only be allowed in”very special circumstances”.

    Presumably to put them on an AONB would require ”very very” special circumstances!

    If you read the developer’s submission, all it amounts to is that it would be easier and cheaper to put them on farmland than on their numerous empty roofs and car parks. This would surely apply to any solar development, and there is nothing in the least special about it.

    I strongly agree with the other correspondents that they should follow the government guidelines, and put them on their own buildings and car parks.

    Nothing undermines voters’ faith in local democracy more than seeing influential people being allowed to get round the law, so I hope the planning committee will do their duty and uphold the law without fear or favour.

  7. Roland Dunster Reply

    June 3, 2023 at 6:37 am

    Putting solar panels on developed/brownfield sites nationally could generate nearly the same amount of clean electricity as 10 new nuclear power stations (CPRE data) and any national or local authority, or indeed any owner of such sites truly serious about tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, should not only view their use as an aim, but as golden opportunity.

    In addition to protecting and enhancing our green spaces for wildlife, nature-friendly farming, flood protection, water quality improvement, and of course ourselves, this approach would preserve our beautiful local and national landscapes.

    • Mark Bray-Parry Reply

      June 6, 2023 at 11:53 am

      CRPE suggests solar panels on “a quarter of UK’s total 250,000 hectares of south-facing commercial roof space” plus “20,000 hectares of car parking space” would yield 33 Giga Watts (GW) of solar capacity.

      It is quite common for this headline figure of 33GW to be used to mean you could expect that amount of electricity all-year-around. However, we know that solar needs light, and is only really effective with direct sunlight.

      The amount of energy we get from a solar panel as a percentage of the capacity is known as the load (or capacity) factor. This varies depending on your latitude and climate.

      In the UK, the load factor is 10 per cent. For reference, a selection of other load factors: Germany 12 per cent, Italy 15 per cent, Spain 18 per cent. That means the maximum output we can get from solar would be 26 TWh [one trillion watts for one hour].

      CRPE [Climate Resilient Programming in Education] suggests this output is the equivalent of “10 nuclear power stations”. Hinckley Point C has a 3.3 GW installed capacity but has a 90 per cent load factor. That means it will generate 26 TWh per year.

      Therefore the CRPE proposal of solar panels on brownfield/developed sites will, at best, be equivalent to 1.1 nuclear power stations. You can see that the CRPE estimate of 10 nuclear power stations is roughly 10 times higher than the real figure. That’s because they’ve not applied the load factor. A mistake or intentionally misleading?

      What CRPE also doesn’t say is the cost of installing 33 GW of solar capacity, which would be close to £1 trillion, 25 times the cost of Hinkley Point C.

      Now, that’s not to say that the University of Surrey shouldn’t consider installing solar panels on its buildings and car parks. It absolutely should. It is a rapid way to reduce their energy emissions and buildings and car parks represent wasted surfaces that could be far better utilised to support energy needs.

      However, we should all be clear on the fact that solar is not the low-carbon energy solution the UK needs and the idea that we should compromise agricultural or green belt land to accommodate it is absurd.

      Solar should be viewed as a great decentralised energy system that can be easily installed on both residential and commercial buildings and car parks.

      Natural gas is still close to 40 per cent of the UK energy mix but brownfield solar, in conjunction with expansion to offshore wind (which has a much higher load capacity than solar), can rapidly replace at least half of the natural gas demand and remove the need for any further exploration, including fracking. That alone will bring solar and wind to 50 per cent of the UK energy mix. The remaining 50 per cent can be given over to large-scale and centralised energy systems such as nuclear and tidal.

      There is simply no justification to hand over green belt land to solar farms anywhere in the UK.

      Mark Bray-Parry has been a member, activist of, and former spokesperson for, The Green Party over the last decade or more. He has recently resigned his party membership and wishes to make clear he is writing in an individual capacity.

  8. Harry Eve Reply

    June 5, 2023 at 7:50 pm

    How many tonnes of CO2e will be generated in the process of building the access road and subsequent vehicle visits for maintenance? What will the payback period be for that? This application is far from being sustainable development and the university should be ashamed of the reputation it is gaining.

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