What is West Welwyn Solar Farm and why is it controversial?
The proposed plan involves the installation of solar panels, standing up to 3m high, across 31 hectares (that’s approximately 77 acres) between Ayot St Lawrence and Ayot St Peter in Hertfordshire’s Green Belt.
The 32MW of power generated would go via direct cabling to Colt Data Services, a business with a data center in Welwyn Garden City. The installation will reduce grid reliance for the Colt Data Centre and reduce its carbon footprint. It will produce power equivalent to support roughly a quarter of the electricity needed to power homes in Welwyn Garden City, reducing competing demand from the grid for that amount of power.
The UK’s electricity sector is under great pressure to shift to renewable, low carbon sources of electricity generation, like solar and wind. While solar panels are not as efficient as wind, they are faster to install and less visible from a distance than wind turbines, making them a logical choice for an inland location in the Green Belt.
Local residents have created the Stop West Welwyn Solar Action group to oppose the installation. Stop West Welwyn group members stated in discussion that the primary objection is related to the visual impact of the solar installation. A spokesperson for the group said that the main concern is that people will no longer use the footpaths if they have a view of solar panels instead of green fields.
A prospective Labour Party candidate, Andrew Lewin, supports the West Welwyn Solar Farm. The local Green Party candidate, Sarah Butcher, is opposed to the West Welwyn Solar Farm. Her recent flyer states: “Sarah calls for ‘more solar panels on buildings, and not agricultural land.’ Local Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates are also opposed to the project.
The Green Party is not wholly opposed to Solar Farms nationally but is in favor of offshore wind for its greater efficiency and solar installations on buildings and in urban areas instead of on arable land. Genevieve Almeyda (Liberal Democrats) is also opposed to the installation. The Conservative Party has voiced opposition to solar farms on arable land across the nation.
With due respect and understanding of these points of view, I do believe that they are misplaced for two key reasons: first, the argument that solar panels should be put on rooftops instead of over land is not a credible alternative in this area, as we will demonstrate later. Simply put, the level of coordination needed to implement a rooftop solar plan delivering 32 MW would require hundreds of businesses, thousands of residences and multiple planning officers to come together, agree, and deliver an ambitious installation plan that would span over 1,000 properties and comprise a mix of residential and industrial roof space. That is highly unrealistic, and if it could be accomplished, would take decades, not months.
Second, the argument for protecting agricultural land is illogical due to the overwhelming volume of available land for agricultural purposes and because in this specific case, the land is currently used as alternating temporary and arable grassland. In the first place, the amount of land being put aside for solar projects represents less than one-third of one percent (.3%) of the agricultural land currently in use in the UK.
UK land in use for golf courses is 5 times higher than the amount of land used for all ground based solar installations across the country. And yet there is no call to prevent any new golf courses being built or to revert golf course land to agricultural use. The volumes are just too small to be consequential and suburbanites don’t typically find golf courses unsightly.
But, even more importantly, the West Welwyn project specifically does not require the sacrifice of a human consumable crop and enables sheep to continue grazing on this land after installation – keeping the productivity of the land as grassland more or less in tact. In short, the only thing one could argue is impacted by the installation is the view of green fields.
So, is this reason enough to oppose its installation? No – in fact, only 3% of the UK population opposes the installation of solar farms. 81% of people surveyed by the government in 2022 stated they would be very happy, fairly happy or would not mind a solar farm being installed in their local area.
The energy crisis and transition to renewables
The UK needs to generate significantly more electricity in the next decade to prevent a growing reliance on imported fossil fuels and avoid crippling increases to electricity prices. Prices have risen by 66.7% in the twelve months ending in January 2023. 46% of adults in the UK are finding it difficult to pay energy bills. And given the projections of increasing electricity demands, that price crunch is only going to get worse.
By 2035, it is estimated that the UK will need to generate 460 terawatt hours of electricity – a more than 40% increase over 2020. This is due to increases in electric vehicle sales and electric heat pumps but also rising demand for energy intensive industries – like data. That’s right, all that streaming you and your kids do that ramped up in COVID requires data storage, a need met by data centers. Data centers produce heat, and therefore require air conditioning, an electricity intensive service, to prevent servers from overheating. In fact, computers, data centers, and networks consume 10% of the world’s electricity and the data center market is expanding at 7.5% globally each year to meet this need.
According to an article in the Guardian:
“The Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body launched in 2008, estimates that the carbon intensity of electricity generation needs to fall significantly on the road to net zero. The amount of CO2 emitted per kilowatt hour would have to fall from 220g in 2019 to 10g in 2035.
After crunching the numbers, the energy advisory firm Cornwall Insight believes this requires a massive ramp-up of wind and solar to meet up to 86% of electricity demand inside 15 years…Solar would need to increase significantly, too, from 15GW to between 22GW and 30GW.”
So, what happens if electricity supply does not increase as much as electricity demand? There would be two very likely outcomes: 1) prices would rise dramatically in order to balance the market, putting more pressure on government to raise or remove the cap on consumer energy prices and 2) the UK would become more reliant on imported supplies of gas to cover the gap.
Electricity prices are still pegged to the price of gas in the UK, due to that being historically the largest input to electricity production (even though it isn’t anymore). Gas prices have exploded since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, rising 129.4% in the 12 months ending in January 2023.
As the government has capped the price that utility providers can charge homes for electricity, over 30 utility companies have gone bankrupt since the price increase began. Their profits turned negative when wholesale prices rose by over 300%, but they were only allowed to charge customers at the government price ceiling of 34p/kWh, a rate well below their cost.
The UK has made incredible strides in moving from fossil fuel based electricity generation (gas/oil/coal) to renewable electricity generation (primarily wind/solar), but we are only halfway there. The reality is we need to dramatically increase the amount of renewable installations that are currently planned.
As well, we need to make sure that electricity can be accessible, even to those on middle and lower incomes. Separating the electricity price in the UK from gas prices by reducing our reliance on gas for electricity generation is one way to influence this.
Are rooftop installations a viable alternative?
Opposition to the West Welwyn solar installation states that “solar panels have a place, but they should be on rooftops and in urban areas, not in Green Belt land”. It is proposed on the opposition’s website that solar panels on the roof of the Colt Data Centre would be a good start.
However, that roof top is 17,000 m2. To match the footprint of the West Welwyn solar installation, you would need 310,000 m2 of rooftop solar panels. So, putting solar panels on the roof of the data centre, while it would be positive, would only meet 5.5% of Colt’s generation need. 94.5% of the solar panels they need would still have to go elsewhere.
Unfortunately, when one analyzes the space available, rooftop solar is not credible in semi-rural areas like Welwyn Garden City. What would it take to get solar installations on to enough buildings in Welwyn Garden to generate 32MW? Based on an average residential roof size of 140 m2, that would take over 2,230 residential rooftops to be fitted with solar panels, or over 10% of the residences in Welwyn Garden City.
Industrial buildings in the Welwyn Garden City area, based on data from Zoopla, have a median roof size of roughly 370 m2*. Based on median building and roof sizes, 837 industrial buildings in the Welwyn Garden City area would need to fit their entire rooftops with panels (and that assumes the panels would achieve the same generation as those planned in the solar farm, which is unlikely due to building positioning and shade factors across varying buildings).
Realistically, to replace the West Welwyn Solar installation with rooftop solar, at least 800 companies or over 2,000 homeowners would need to opt in to install roof panels. And, that isn’t taking into account the fact that most of those players will want to keep at least a portion of the power generated on their rooftops for themselves.
In reality, there isn’t enough industrial space in Welwyn Garden City to accomplish that using industrial rooftops alone. Residential roof installations would require over 10% of residents in Welwyn Garden to opt in, and they will require planning permission if they are in the Welwyn Garden City Estate Management Scheme, are in a conservation area, or if they live in a listed building.
These obstacles will prevent any sort of scale of solar generation being achieved via rooftop installations in a short space of time. In contrast, West Welwyn could be generating power less than a year after approval. Perhaps the appropriate compromise is that West Welwyn is installed as soon as possible (installation is expected to take 4-6 months), and over its 30 year initial life, rooftop installations are coordinated and planning permission is sought to replace West Welwyn so that the installation can be removed when rooftop panels have replaced its capacity.
Save the land?
One of the strongest arguments against solar installations on arable land is that we should protect the habitats of small land mammals and we should be using all available agricultural land to produce agricultural products. Surely this what opponents to the solar plant installation have in mind for the land when they say, “Save Ayot Green Belt Land”.
The first point is quite valid. The security fencing proposed for the installation could interrupt the movement of animals in the area. Particularly, the habitat restriction of deer, foxes, and badgers are referred to in the Green Party opposition to the West Welwyn installation. Certainly, all appropriate steps should be taken to reduce the impact on local populations of deer, badgers, and foxes.
However, on balance, I cannot conclude populations of these creatures will see a significant negative impact from the installation. Deer populations in the UK have continuously increased in the last 40 years, and are estimated to have doubled since 1999. Deer are culled annually in Hertfordshire to control the population and to prevent damage to garden and agricultural crops from non-native species of deer, particularly muntjac & fallow.
Badgers and foxes are unlikely to be significantly disrupted by fencing if it is not dug down to a depth of 450mm, as they will dig underneath and happily maintain their access to the land on the other side. Foxes can scale fencing over 2m high, so these populations will undoubtedly find their way into the proposed site, either under or over proposed fencing.
It will be useful to understand the details from the ecological survey being carried out, but I cannot see, on face value, how badger or fox populations will be significantly disrupted by the proposed fencing. They should still be able to access the area. As deer are currently overpopulated, reducing their habitat by these 77 acres does not represent a threat to the local ecosystem.
This disruption on balance is outweighed by the benefits the installation, with its meadow and hedgerows, will bring to pollinator populations who, unlike deer populations, have declined dramatically. This is a topic in which forthcoming ecological survey detail should be scrutinized to ensure that all that can be done to minimize the disruption to native species and support the growth of endangered pollinators is acted upon.
Does this solar farm threaten our agricultural productivity?
The argument regarding arable land use being reserved for agriculture is also misplaced for two reasons. The first is that agricultural land in the UK and our food supply are not under threat from solar installations. The second is that the land sited for the installation will not be materially affected by the installation. It is currently used as arable or temporary grassland, and it can continue to be grassland with solar panels on it.
Currently, solar installations make up 0.1% of all land in the UK. Government targets for increasing electricity supply would bring that up to 0.3% of all UK land. In contrast, land used for agriculture in the UK is estimated to be 71% of total UK land.
That means solar installations would impact, at their maximum, 0.5% of the land used for agriculture, and they would represent less than half the space that is taken up by golf courses even when they reach the government target of 690 km2.
And, yet, we don’t see activists or politicians calling for a ban on golf course construction to protect our food supply. In my research, it seems the “protect agriculture” argument has emerged as a political talking point, but has been debunked by fact checkers based on the tiny proportion of agricultural output that would be impacted.
Now let’s look separately at whether or not we really do need more land for agricultural use or energy generation. The UK’s food self sufficiency ratio is 75%. It will not reach 100%, not due to lack of arable land, but because:
“UK consumer preferences and diets include a range of products that cannot be grown in the UK or cannot be grown year-round. Therefore, the UK does not produce everything it eats or eat everything it produces.”
Estimated combined annual food surplus and waste in the above report was 13.1 million tonnes. Post farm gate – meaning in homes and the hospitality sector – we waste about 22% of the food we purchase. And we are 75% self-sufficient, meaning our food sufficiency gap is a problem of food preferences and waste, not land misuse.
We do not need to set aside more land for agricultural use. We need to get more efficient in our distribution of the produce that we make (eating what we can produce in the UK rather than importing) and wasting less of what we buy. We also need to get more responsible in the way that we farm it so that we are not degrading the soil and putting future agricultural production at risk.
Numerous scientific studies have shown that intensive agriculture practice like that carried out by industrial farms across the UK is killing the land. Repeated use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers is reducing biodiversity in the soil and therefore reducing crop yields. According to the UK’s 2021 government report on food security :
“The biggest medium to long term risk to the UK’s domestic production comes from climate change and other environmental pressures like soil degradation, water quality and biodiversity. Wheat yields dropped by 40% in 2020 due to heavy rainfall and droughts at bad times in the growing season.”
And sadly, farmers that would like to practice responsibly, without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, really struggle to make a living given competition from industrial farms and market prices. A responsible solar installation can give the land a break and provide much needed additional income to farmers.
In fact, recent studies show solar installations give the soil a chance to recover from intensive agricultural practice. According to the Natural Capital Guide:
“For solar farms on previous arable land, giving the land a break from intensive cultivation for extended periods – with minimal or no inputs of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers – can reap big rewards in terms of boosting biodiversity, soil health and regeneration. With a positive ecological enhancement strategy built into the project design as well, the gains can be increased multiple times.”
While more scientific study is needed to quantify these gains over time, initial research is promising:
“A 2016 paper found that solar farms tended to have more species of plant, insect and bird than equivalent farm fields. Earlier research from 2013 seemed to support this finding: when compared to the surrounding farmland, which the solar farm used to be a part of, greater numbers of butterflies and bees were found on the site.”
The West Welwyn installation includes a hectare of land dedicated to improving biodiversity. It is expected that this ecology project will include a wildflower meadow, reinstating a small fraction of the 97% of meadow loss that Britain has experienced since the 1930s, and having the potential to improve the productivity of surrounding farms by proving much needed pollinator populations.
Alternative energy sources
When asked about how we could meet the needs posed by our energy crisis without installations like West Welwyn, a spokesperson for the Stop West Welwyn Solar group responded that the best solution to meet our energy needs is nuclear energy. He proffered this as a personal opinion, rather than an opinion shared by the group, but I feel it necessary to address it, as the logic here is also misplaced.
In the first instance, there was no suggestion that the additional nuclear capacity should be sited in the Green Belt. It would be an uphill battle, to say the least, in achieving planning approval to install a nuclear power plant on Green Belt land. So this proposition is effective at outsourcing the negative visual impact of our dependence on electricity to a different set of back gardens and footpaths.
Globally, nuclear power stations are more likely to be built in poor communities, and particularly in communities with higher proportions of marginalized groups. So, nuclear is a good alternative candidate for those in the Green Belt seeking protection from being visually confronted with the electricity generation our lifestyles require.
Nuclear power stations, unlike solar installations, provide no positive benefits to the environmental surrounds, and introduce serious risks associated with the creation of radioactive waste at multiple stages of development and operation. Radioactive waste has historically been shown to have extreme impacts on human and animal populations in close proximity to nuclear power stations – Chernobyl and Fukushima are the most famous, but there are many other examples.
Ignoring the social and environmental risks associated with nuclear installations, we also know nuclear installations take decades to be approved, funded and constructed before they can start generating power.
As an example, look at Dungeness in Kent. B1 & B2 took 18 and 20 years respectively to construct, and EDF has estimated the cost of defueling Dungeness B at between £0.5 billion to £1.0 billion, part of which is funded by UK taxpayers. At both the beginning and end of a nuclear station’s life, there are huge construction costs and impacts.
Similarly, Hinkley Point, an EDF project, was funded in 2016 and expected to be online in 2025 at a cost of £18bn. It is now estimated to not be online before 2027 (some estimates suggest it will not be operational until 2036) at a cost of £32.7bn.
Frankly, we don’t have that much time to meet our electricity needs, and that level of funding could be better spent on improving supply chain issues associated with the manufacture of solar panels and on adjusting battery chemistry to improve energy storage.
The Green Party’s opposition to solar farms states:
It is Green Party policy to avoid reliance on solar farms and instead support small scale, community-led schemes. In their words, ‘Rapid deployment of solar photovoltaics will be fully supported, as a key source of decentralised generation, making full use of domestic, commercial and industrial roof space and limited deployment of ‘solar farms’. Small community schemes allow local communities to prosper. The Green Party would also invest more in offshore wind power, hydropower, tidal, geothermal and other renewable technologies if they were in Government.
I fear this argument falls victim to an either/or fallacy. We should not be looking at either solar farms or offshore wind. We should be approaching the energy crisis with a both/and mentality. We need offshore wind, onshore wind, solar on building, AND solar farms to meet our needs.
Especially in Hertfordshire, as we don’t have a coastline to provide offshore wind, and I dare say an onshore wind farm would attract even greater opposition in the Green Belt than a solar farm. And, as we have already demonstrated, the argument for solar installations only on buildings is not credible.
I don’t disagree with any of the Green Party’s points, but I struggle with the lack of urgency it relies upon: the idea that we have the luxury of being “choosy” regarding the types of renewable energy we pursue. And, particularly for Hertfordshire, the alternatives proposed by the national Green Party guidance simply aren’t viable options in this county.
West Welwyn Solar Farm can be constructed in 4-6 months and will generate power from a clean renewable source without health risks or hazardous by-products. At the end of its life, it can be decommissioned simply and easily, and return the land to whatever use is required with greater health and biodiversity in the surrounds as a positive by-product of the power plant’s existence.
So, in summary, the West Welwyn solar installation will generate much-needed electricity that will help us to reduce the demand for local electricity and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It will help us meet the government‘s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will help us to meet the electricity needs ever ever growing demand for more data.
It will help the soil in the greenbelt recover from decades of intensive agricultural practice. It will not have a negative long-term impact on the environment. It may not be as pretty as a green field, but I do not believe that it will stop people using the land. I hope it will give people a healthy respect for what is required to power our lives. Solar installations are temporary in nature and quick to install – the proposed solar installation in Welwyn West is expected to take 4 to 6 months to construct and have an initial useful life of 30 years.
Let us not also forget West Welwyn is proposed for installation on private land. That land is currently used as alternating arable and temporary grassland. After the solar installation, it can still be grassland, and small grazing animals can graze underneath and around the panels. At the end of the day, it is a private landowner’s choice how they want to use their land. There is no guarantee that the landowner would cultivate the land with agricultural products should the solar farm be refused.
If landowners find they can make more money with solar power than they can off of farming alone, that is not reason to oppose solar installations, it is a reason to look at our government policies that make it easy for irresponsible farming practice to be more profitable than small sustainable farms that respect biodiversity and soil health. Solar installations are a lucrative supplement to agricultural production, especially for responsible farmers who cannot compete with industrial farms.
I certainly can understand why local residents want to preserve the beautiful Green Belt views. They are precious. But, facing the significant energy needs that we have, and knowing that we are all contributing to that demand for energy, I recognize that it is reasonable to sacrifice our fear of change and release a small portion of our beautiful green fields in order to pursue responsible energy production.
Therefore, I believe that we need to pursue this large installation, and in the meantime, while it is generating electricity, also pursue multiple building based installations so that we can return the land to agricultural use in 30 years. We need renewable electricity from all of these channels, and more, to meet the demands of our electricity hungry population.
At any point, if we are satisfying our energy needs with mostly renewable sources, the West Welwyn solar installation can be removed having had positive impact on the underlying soil in its lifetime.
So, in the case of West Welwyn, we must conclude that what could truly save the Green Belt land is a break from intensive agriculture practice, giving the soil and pollinator populations a chance to recover and return to productive farming. We must stop trying to save the way the land looks, and focus on saving the land itself.
Regardless of whether you agree with my conclusions or not, please share your feedback, so that a multitude of views are represented in the consultation process.
The UK Net Zero Electricity Target (Guardian)