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Comment piece: What developers don’t tell you about solar farms

by Penny Mills, CPRE Devon

Local charity Devon CPRE campaigns to stop huge solar developments swallowing up the county’s productive farmland. Director Penny Mills explains why the environmental pressure group opposes so-called renewable energy.

Devon CPRE is an independent local charity, a branch of the national countryside charity CPRE, formerly known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. This month, Devon CPRE will be taking part in two significant legal challenges against contested solar farms in this neck of the woods: a Public Inquiry beginning on June 14th into the Langford solar farm in Mid Devon, followed by a Judicial Review on June 22nd into the Derril Water site at Pyworthy near Holsworthy, which Torridge District Council approved despite overwhelming opposition from residents and parish councils.  

Our small organisation is currently fighting a rash of solar farm proposals the length and breadth of our county, but these two planning applications could prove to be ‘test cases’ for many others in the future. 

At a time of rising energy bills and the wider cost-of-living crisis, you might ask why Devon CPRE so vehemently opposes such developments? Renewable energy companies would have us believe that covering our farmland in solar panels is a good thing, a panacea for our problems, and people are often surprised that we - as an environmental charity - don't support the uncontrolled rush to cover productive farmland with glass and metal. Surely, solar is ‘green’, they say. And produces cheap electricity. We beg to differ. Renewables aren’t all they’re made out to be, and here’s why.  

For starters, there’s the issue of food security. If we carry on as we are, very soon we will no longer be able to produce enough home-grown food and will become increasingly reliant on imports - whatever the cost. This is about much more than our fields looking green and pretty. It’s about the very real risk of an ever-increasing reliance on food that’s travelled halfway around the world. If the Ukraine war has taught us anything, it’s that supplies of any commodity can’t be guaranteed and that reduced availability pushes up prices. 

Energy companies like building solar on farmland. Why? Because it’s cheap, easy and lucrative. They would have us believe that the energy they produce is also cheap. Don’t be deluded by wishful thinking - it’s not the case. Put simply, solar and wind power are NOT, and never will be, stand-alone forms of electricity generation in this country. Every inch of Devon’s countryside could be covered in solar panels and wind turbines but - because they rely on the weather - they still wouldn’t supply a constant, reliable source of electricity. In fact, the more consumers rely on unpredictable renewables, the more they will pay for electricity. This is because controllable gas-fired power stations are needed to balance the grid 24/7 to keep supply matching demand.  Nuclear power stations and gas-fired power stations all need to be available to operate on cold, dark and still winter days when wind and solar together produce negligible amounts of electricity.

Finally, what about the ethical considerations of an increasing reliance on solar farms? The uncomfortable truth is that solar panels contain all manner of toxic substances that can degrade the soil beneath them if the panels are damaged, they can’t be recycled at the end of their use, and there is evidence the world’s four biggest manufacturers of solar panels use materials tainted by a massive system of coercion in China. Concern about the use of forced labour in solar panel manufacturing follows investigations by Sheffield Hallam University and Amnesty International. The report 'In Broad Daylight - Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Supply Chains' claims that Chinese authorities are committing human rights violations against minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang. The area produces almost half of the world’s supply of polysilicon, a key component in the production of solar panels. 

Last summer, several of Devon’s local authorities admitted to our charity that, despite statements on their websites about human rights and modern slavery, they have "no powers" to control the sourcing of solar panels on developments they approve. 

As we prepare to fight our corner and fight for Devon’s countryside this month in the courts of law, the company behind the Pyworthy scheme, Renewable Energy Systems Limited (RES), has submitted a fresh application for the site. This duplicate planning application seems to us a ‘cynical ploy’ to play both the planning and the legal system. 

Make no mistake, decisions made now will set a precedent for the future of the solar industry in this country. Developers are only interested in profit - don’t take their claims at face value. 

If you would like to support our work to protect the countryside for future generations, visit  www.devoncpre.org.uk

To find out more about Devon CPRE’s ‘Save our Fields from Solar Farms’ campaign, watch our video presented by John Nettles  JOHN NETTLES PRESENTS DEVON CPRE'S 'SAVE OUR FIELDS FROM SOLAR FARMS' CAMPAIGN

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