Why solar farms are good for wildlife, farming and local people

In 2013 the one-time ‘fracking village’ of Balcombe set themselves the hefty task to repower itself with community owned solar panels. The plan was to match 100% of the villages electricity needs with locally owned solar power. But just as it all started to come together, government cuts scuppered their ambitious solar farm plan.

Now they've bounced back and the solar farm has been built by a commercial developer.  But like anything humans build, solar farms need to be designed with respect for nature and the local landscape,  with the solar farm built in March this year a few people have asked us how Repower Balcombe planned to enact that respect. 

We’ve shared the answers below, and If you’d like to ask a question, drop us a line and we’ll add it in.

Why aren't they putting the panels on roofs?

When they first got together in late 2013, Repower Balcombe’s plan was to host their solar panels on rooftops in the area. They had already hooked up two local primary schools and a nearby farm.

But with around 12,000 panels needed to match the village’s electricity demand, they were counting on deals with big barns and warehouses to get them over the line. They investigated over 100 potential host buildings, but between weak roofs, hidden asbestos and reluctant landlords, these once-promising candidates no longer fit the bill. So while rooftop solar can be great in some places, staying at ground level turned out to be the best option for Balcombe, and they went out of their way to make this a shining example of how it should be done.

Does this take land away from farming?

No. The fields they're planning to use aren't much good for growing crops, and need to be continuously sprayed with lots of artificial fertiliser to make them productive. Obviously the farmer is keen to stop doing this, and the solar project will make that possible.

But the solar panels don't have the field to themselves – they are arranged so sheep can graze between the rows. This is quite common in the UK – here's a photo from our visit to the nearby Five Oaks solar farm, which Balcombe are used as a template for theirs.

On the subject of land use, it’s worth mentioning that in the UK we use agricultural land for all kinds of things other than growing food – golf courses and campsites, for example, take up more potential farmland than solar panels ever will. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a good way to put this issue in perspective.

What’s the impact on plants and wildlife?

This project should be great for wildlife. Solar farm builders mount their panels on light metal frames, leaving about 97% of the space under and around the panels free for other things. This – combined with the fact that solar farms need to be securely fenced off anyway – provides an amazing opportunity for nature to get on with buzzing and blooming and blossoming undisturbed.

The team even made the solar farm a haven for plants and wildlife, with more and better habitats on offer than when the fields were used for crops, including:

  • Created grassland around the panels, encouraging wildflowers, birds, bats, amphibians and invertebrates.
  • Managing the hedgerows to give birds and bats plenty of opportunities to nest and feed in winter.
  • Designed the boundary fences so small mammals can come in and forage.

For another example, check out this case study from Willersey solar farm in Gloucestershire.

Can you see the panels from the surrounding countryside?

Not really. The whole installation is screened by tall hedgerows around the perimeter, so unless you're standing in a small part of one neighbouring field, the panels are basically invisible. Nothing on the finished site is more than three metres tall.

What do local people think?

They really like them. The planning application for the solar farm attracted 69 comments from local people, all of them were supportive.

Early in 2015, they held a community outreach event, inviting local people to come and learn about the plans. A poll of people attending showed 88% were in favour, with only one person against.

Sounds good! What can I do?

  • Spread the word. Balcombe is already inspiring other communities to follow in their footsteps, and the more people hear about this, the further this approach will spread.
  • Help more community projects. Check out Community Energy England’s hub. This directory includes most of the community energy groups in the UK. See if you can find your local group. 

Got a question we haven't answered here? Tweet us @1010 or email [email protected] and we'll add it in.

Photo: Solar Trade Association / Belectric