Region’s green growth seen from the sky

The solar farm at Parham

The solar farm at Parham - Credit: Archant

Is this the future of Suffolk’s countryside?

Depending on which side of the solar debate you stand, these striking aerial images either represent low-carbon energy production or a blight on our beautiful region.

But, love it or loathe it, this bird’s-eye view of a rural Suffolk village’s new 75-acre sun farm illustrates the birth of a renewable energy boom for the region.

The 15 megawatt (mW) development in Great Glemham, near Framlingham, is almost primed to start generating enough electricity to power up to 4,600 homes.

These arrays of photo-voltaic panels could become a commonplace across the region as developers rush to get approval for applications before a lower solar subsidy takes effect at the end of March next year, when suppliers will no longer be required to buy a certain amount of renewable energy.

Like nuclear power, and other emerging renewable source of energy, solar remains controversial. Supporters call it clean and efficient and opponents say it is intrusive and inadequate.

In March, AGRenewables of London and Great Glemham Farms won permission from Suffolk Coastal to install 64,200 panels on land at the former Parham airfield.

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It is one of several either in the planning stages or awaiting approval.

Dr John Constable, director of Renewable Energy Foundation, a UK charity publishing data on the energy sector, said: “There are still important concerns about the level of subsidy to solar, but if appropriately designed a solar installation is less likely to be a nuisance to local neighbours than very large industrial wind turbines.

“The key to truly sustainable solar development is the scale; it really can be too big. The Great Glemham project is probably acceptable, but any larger than that and neighbours are, quite rightly, going to start digging in their heels.”

At Great Glemham, landowner Argus Gathorne-Hardy will lease the land to AGRenewables for the 20-year life of the solar panels.

The site is divided by a County Wildlife Reserve, which Mr Hardy’s grandfather and father developed from the old runway strip. Once installed, the farm’s Alde Valley flock of sheep will be able graze between and underneath the panels.

Project manager Imran Sheikh said: “We are in the late stages of construction. The frames and panels are in place, and the majority of wiring is also complete.

“We will be pushing on with commissioning in the next month or so.

“As soon as we have moved people and vehicle off the site, and the ground is allowed to settle, we will be able to start planting. After a year, we will get the whole flock in there.”

Last week, solar power groups published guidance on building large solar farms, encouraging developers to choose brownfield sites and not high-quality agricultural land.

But some campaigners are still not convinced. A spokesman for the Campaign to Protect Rural England said: “From a national perspective we are very concerned at the rapidly growing number of applications for solar farms in quite intrusive locations.

“Good-quality agricultural land is being taken up and we would urge the Government to ensure that there are clear guidelines on appropriate settings for solar farms.”

Tom Beeley, renewable energy advisor with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said it was generally supportive of renewable energy policy – including solar.

He said there was debate about such developments taking up agricultural land but added that such sites had always been used for more than just farming.

“There is potential for land to be used for solar farms combined with a little grazing as well,” he added. “It’s not necessarily taking up agricultural land entirely.

“Once the solar farm comes to the end of its life – in 25 or 30 years time – that land can also be returned to its former use relatively easily.”

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