Solar farms, an environmentally-friendly way of generating electricity for residents, have been springing up across Oxfordshire but not everyone approves. Pete Hughes reports
WHEN solar energy firm Aton held a public exhibition of its plans to build the county’s second largest solar farm, on a green field in Grove, it must have been prepared for some opposition.
Smaller plans elsewhere in the county have drawn protests, campaign groups, and even a visit from Local Government minister Eric Pickles to try to raise awareness of villagers’ concerns.
What Aton got was a small number of curious visitors, most of whom were mildly interested and generally in favour of the scheme.
If it gets permission, the farm will cover 145 acres of farmland for 20 years, generating environmentally-friendly electricity for up to 6,000 homes, which the firm says will probably be used by local homes and businesses.
Aton’s UK director Nicolas Martin, who attended the exhibition at Grove Parish Church on Tuesday night, said: “We have had about 20 people who have been relatively supportive. People are interested in how it works.
“The UK government has a drive to move away from coal but there is a target for renewable energy generation, and we have to do it in the proper way.”
Aton’s UK boss Nicolas Martin, front
In March, Didcot’s coal-fired power station was decommissioned after 43 years, under an European Union directive to move to renewable energy.
Wantage resident Julie Mabberely, who leads the Wantage and Grove Campaign Group for sustainable development (WAGCG), said: “We have lost Didcot power station, and part of the district council’s plan for development is to make the Vale of White Horse more eco-friendly and solar farms do help with that.”
Aton said the site in Grove is particularly suitable because it is surrounded by trees and far away from most settlements, meaning it won’t spoil many residents’ views.
VIEWS: Left, local resident Brian Stovold, developer Sophie Hockin, and Julie Mabberley, of the Wantage and Grove Campaign Group, at an exhibition about the solar farm near Grove
The facility would last for 20 years, and then be dismantled and the site restored to its agricultural use.
In 2013, plans were lodged that could see 1,833 acres in Oxfordshire covered with solar panels – more than four times the 427 acres proposed in 2012.
Helen Marshall, Oxfordshire director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), warned that people in favour of solar farm proposals were not considering the cumulative impact from numerous facilities yet to be built.
She said: “I think the Vale district council should be thinking carefully about the cumulative impact and be thinking about a policy on that approach.
“People are reassured by this lovely term ‘solar farm’, they like the idea of renewable energy and they are not as obtrusive in the landscape as wind turbines.
“But nonetheless, they are effectively power stations.
“There are thousands of roofs and industrial buildings that can be used for solar panels before we need to start building over valuable agricultural land.”
Meanwhile, Aton is planning to digest the feedback from its consultation this week before submitting a planning application later this year.
Work starts on the biggest scheme in the UK
THE company behind a £37m solar scheme at Landmead Farm near East Hanney has started work.
The 230-acre solar farm is set to become the largest in the UK, providing 41 MW of power to about 10,000 homes.
Getting under way this month, the firm hopes work will be completed by April.
UNDER WAY: Catherine Strickland of Thrings and George Paton of WebbPaton at site of the new solar farm being built near Hanney
The project is effectively the second phase of a bigger project on land owned by Oxfordshire farmer Neil Walker.
The neighbouring Goose Willow Farm on Hanney Road, just outside Steventon, is already producing energy.
An £18m investment saw it begin operating as a solar farm shortly before Christmas and it is expected that the 145-acre plant will provide 20MW of power.
Catherine Strickland, an associate at Thrings, a law firm involved in the lease of Landmead Farm to developers INRG Solar, said: “Oxfordshire and Wiltshire are in fact prime areas for solar projects due to sunlight here – as well as good access to the National Grid.”
CPRE Oxfordshire director Helen Marshall said the scale and speed of what was being proposed outside East Hanney had taken her by surprise as she realised that the two schemes were on neighbouring sites.
She said it reinforced her fears about the Oxfordshire countryside being covered by vast areas of dark glass, almost unnoticed.
Ms Marshall said: “We are obviously concerned about the visual impact on the site.
“As with other solar farms we do not think it is the right use for agricultural land.
“We don’t understand why these enormous sites are being given permission. Because other applications are still in the pipeline, and units are not yet built, people are not aware of the accumulative impact.
“Oxfordshire residents will be in for a shock when all the solar farms come on line.”
George Paton, a partner with WebbPaton, land agents who negotiated the lease of the East Hanney site, said: “This is the most concealed site possible.
“You cannot see it from anywhere. It is nondescript land with no features, lying in a basin. If you wanted to hide something away, this is perfect.”
‘LIKE PRISON CAMP’
RESIDENTS of Besselsleigh near Abingdon said a 120-acre solar farm in their village just west of Oxford would look like a “prison camp”.
About 100 residents from Besselsleigh and surrounding villages turned out to an exhibition of the plan at Cumnor Village Hall in September.
They insisted there was nothing that Hive Energy could do to mitigate the impact of its £20m plans, which would include the 70,000-panel farm being surrounded by a fence dotted with CCTV cameras.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles and Oxford West and Abingdon MP Nicola Blackwood at the site of a proposed solar farm in Bessesleigh
Besselsleigh resident Jane Cranston said 18 of the 19 homes in the village had opposed the development, planned for land just off the A420.
Miss Cranston said: “With fences put up all around, it would be like walking into a prison camp. It is fundamentally inappropriate.”
The facility would generate enough energy for 5,500 homes annually.
Hive promised that it would only last for 25 years, after which the land would be returned to the Green Belt.
Director Tim Purbrick said: “We will put fences up all around it as a deterrent to people because it’s a £20m investment and a power station.”
Hive said it will either submit a planning application or hold more public consultations this year.