The SBW Working Group and Parish / Village Action Groups are awaiting confirmation of the timetable for the second round of Parish / Village Public Consultations by the developers Photovolt Development Partners (PVDP). We have now heard from WODC that PVDP will not be starting any further consultations until well into the Autumn, and that a further “booklet” of information will be sent out to everyone by PVDP before any public consultations commence. We believe that this further delay arises from the fact that PVDP were told firmly by the Planning Inspectorate in their Scoping Opinion that they needed to do more work in relation to their Scoping Report. The many responses that SBW supporters also sent in will have contributed to this so well done everyone! This is part of the Pre-Application Planning Process (https://stopbotleywest.com/the-process). We will continue to keep you updated on this.
Yesterday (5th September), the House of Commons debated amendments to the Energy Bill, which is nearing the end of its progress through Parliament. Among the amendments being proposed at this quite late stage are two which interest us! One asks that the Government requires clear and convincing evidence from any solar PV applicant with an existing or planned project under the NSIP regime that the components of those proposed schemes, including solar PV panels and battery storage, have not been manufactured using “forced labour”. It is suggested that failure to provide the evidence required should lead to rejection of the scheme being proposed. The second proposed amendment asks that the development of solar farms on more than 500 acres should be prohibited where that land includes more than 20% of what is called “Best and Most Versatile” agricultural land. We will let you know the outcome of these two proposed amendments.
Last week (31st August) the Oxford Mail announced that the Dodswells Solar Farm north of the A40 near Milton Common and Tetsworth had been approved for planning. This site covers 278 acres of land (112.5 hectares). The plan was approved by South Oxfordshire District Council despite objections from the affected parishes including Great Milton, Great Haseley and Tetsworth. Whilst this site is a fraction of the size of the proposed Botley West Utility Scale Solar Power Station at nearly 1376 hectares (3,400 acres; less than a tenth the size) it raises the question of cumulative development in Oxfordshire. As part of the Environmental Impact Statement required by the Planning Inspectorate the Botley West Scheme must consider additional development within Oxfordshire including other solar power schemes, housing and other categories of building over the countryside surrounding Oxford and other settlements in the county.
According to the Pathways to a Zero Carbon Oxfordshire report (2021), the county already generates about 3% of the U.K.’s national total of solar energy, double its share of emissions and about 3 times the national average compared to its population size. By 2018 Oxfordshire had installed 313 MW of commercial solar arrays implying approximately 313 hectares of land had already been subsumed by these schemes as the current efficiency of solar modules is about 1MW per hectare. According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England Oxfordshire the county already has 800MW of capacity operational or planned and approved. To maintain its national share of solar energy production assuming growth in population and energy consumption by 2030 Oxfordshire would need to have a solar generation capacity of 728-868 MW and by 2050 1,679 – 2,253 MW. Even the most aggressive scenarios for growth of solar in Oxfordshire imply a 3-fold increase in solar capacity by 2030 and a 10-fold by 2050 compared to the 2018/2019 figures. So given the announcement of the Dodswell Solar Farm and other “large” schemes already approved or in the planning pipeline we see that cumulative solar development within the county is already building up on the countryside of Oxfordshire but furthermore, when we account for these schemes in addition to the massive Botley West Utility Scale Solar farm development it starts to look as though Oxfordshire will overshoot even the most aggressive plans for construction of solar power stations put forward in the Pathways to Zero Carbon Oxfordshire study. Add to these developments the 100,000 houses planned for the county between 2016 and 2031, many of which locally have been targeted at greenfield sites the cumulative impact on the countryside and Oxfordshire’s greenbelt in particular looks depressing (although these plans are being revised). We also need to consider land being subsumed under industrial development such as the science parks such including those near to the Pear Tree roundabout and near to Oxford Airport to the northwest of Oxford city. Overall, these multiple developments are cumulatively eating away at Oxfordshire’s greenbelt effectively extending the urban environment of the city to the limits of rural settlements such as Woodstock and Eynsham.
Botley West should also be considered against alternative approaches to solar in Oxfordshire. For example, a study in 2012 suggested that the annual solar energy resource striking rooftops in Oxfordshire was equivalent to 57% of Oxfordshire’s total electricity requirements in 2015 (Oxfordshire Energy Strategy, 2018). The development of Smart Grid technology would be important in developing such an approach, but this is probably already necessary to cope with the proliferation of smaller solar power stations in the county anyway. Also, the development of improved solar panel technologies (e.g. perovskite materials being developed by Oxford Photovoltaics) could lead to a 50% increase in the efficiency of solar energy production proportionately decreasing the need for covering our farmland. Considering such innovations, the need for such a massive-scale solar power station in Oxfordshire is at best questionable. We do not deny that the country must move to renewable energy sources. However, we must use innovative approaches and evidence-based planning policy to ensure that our countryside, the very reason that many people (and much of the wildlife) enjoy living in Oxfordshire and elsewhere in the country is not destroyed in the process.