County set for surge in solar farm development, Government plans suggest
The number of solar farms in Norfolk is expected to see a massive rise in the next decade, under plans to dramatically increase the UK’s energy independence and reduce the use of fossil fuels.
The county already has one of the country’s highest concentrations of solar installations – with a total of more than 21,000 – but the government wants Norfolk to produce five times as much electricity from the sun by 2035.
Norfolk’s size, geography and climate mean it is well suited to the expansion in the solar industry outlined by ministers last month, as the UK aims to move away from oil and gas, and to boost renewable energy sources.
They say the shift will also help bring down energy bills in the long term.
Questions about future solar farms have come into sharper local focus recently following the rejection of plans for a major installation at Walpole Marsh, which is subject to an appeal.
However, the expected local increase in solar farms has raised concerns that it could lead to the loss of important agricultural land as well as harm local landscapes.
Norfolk currently has the sixth most solar plants in England, after five counties in the south and south west.
The latest figures, from 2020, showed there were a total of 21,103 solar plants in the county of varying size – from small-scale installations to vast farms covering several hectares.
They had a combined capacity of about 502.76 megawatts – enough to power about 377,000 homes.
But the government wants to loosen and simplify planning rules for solar farms, to make it easier for them to be installed on ‘non-protected’ land.
By 2035, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is expecting a fivefold increase in solar capacity across the UK, with experts saying that conditions in Norfolk mean the growth of new solar farms is likely to be even greater.
Dustin Benton, policy director at the Green Alliance think tank, said: “Norfolk is relatively sunny – it’s not quite as sunny as the south west [of England] – but nonetheless pretty flat, pretty sunny, a good place to stick solar panels.
“You’re probably going to see more in Norfolk than some other parts, just because of the hours of sunlight.”
Critics argue solar farms displace food production, by occupying useful agricultural land. But Mr Benton disputed this.
“Solar and food production are not incompatible,” he said. “You can grow, for example, vegetables on the same land as you put solar panels on – and the reason is that for most systems, sunlight is not the limiting factor. It’s something else – it’s a nutrient, or it’s possibly water or whatnot.
“So if you design your system well, and you’re a farmer, you could get some energy and you could also get some food – and that’s quite an attractive system.”
Mr Benton cautioned however over solar panels being placed on grade one or two agricultural land, which are the two most productive types of land, without careful thought being given to how the panels and crops can co-exist.
But he said solar projects were usually suitable for other kinds of land, even those with livestock – as was the case in a proposal approved last year in Old Buckenham, where sheep roam among the panels.
“There’s loads of relatively poor agricultural land, even in a county that’s as blessed with good-quality agricultural land as Norfolk,” he added.
But changing the planning laws won’t necessarily please everyone.
In a 2021 policy statement, the Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said that while it generally supported renewable energies, “large solar farms should not come at the expense of the beauty, character and tranquillity of Norfolk’s countryside”.
It added that non-protected landscapes can be just as worthy of protection from solar farms as protected ones: “Much of this so called ‘ordinary’ countryside is very attractive and tranquil and equally deserving of protection from visual intrusion by industrial-scale photovoltaic arrays”.
When she was environment secretary, South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss described large-scale solar farms as “a blight on the landscape”.
BEIS data from 2020 showed there were nearly 10,000 solar installations across the West Norfolk, Breckland and North Norfolk districts, ranging from a single panel to large farms.
But the panels in North Norfolk had a significantly higher electrical output of 181,331 MWh than any other district of the county, which could suggest the district’s installations were – at least in 2020 – the largest on average.