The sun rises on Leeds green belt energy plan

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Plans to create a solar energy farm on green belt land in Leeds look set to be approved and while ‘green energy’ may chime with current thinking, not everyone is in agreement, as Neil Hudson found out.

It will cover an area the size of 13 football pitches and generate enough energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes during its 25-year lifespan.

You might think, then, that plans to turn part of an agricultural farm into a solar farm is a no-brainer but like most things in life, it’s not as simple as that.

In April, Leeds councillors determined there were no major objections to the plans to create one of the UK’s largest solar farms on land at Haigh Hall Farm, West Ardsley.

The plan by Oakapple Renewable Energy is to install 32,000 photo-voltaic panels on the land, each standing on 1m high steel frames and generating enough energy to power 2,000 homes a year.

It is by no means the first solar farm in the UK - in April, a £35m solar farm in Leicestershire was connected to the National Grid.

It claims to be the UK’s biggest and is about four times the size of the one planned for West Ardsley. It consists of more than 130,000 panels over 60 hectares at Wymeswold Airfield, near Loughborough.

According to Professor Christopher Gorse, director of Leeds Sustainability Institute and professor of construction and project management at Leeds Metropolitan University, we can expect to see a lot more of such projects.

He said: “It is something we will definitely see more of in the future and, in terms of location, it is often the case that projects such as this do end up in areas which are of natural beauty, simply because they are more efficient in terms of collecting energy and are not restricted by other buildings overshadowing them, as they would be if they were in cities.

“Certainly, the Government is keen to push schemes like this and there are even incentives for people who install solar panels in terms of them having lower energy tariffs.

“Some people argue it is not the best use of green belt land but the difference between this and, say, a wind farm, for example, is that solar farms are temporary structures.

“They can easily be taken up, leaving little of no footprint.

“At the moment, green energy is in its infancy but the Government is desperately trying to push that side of things in order to reduce our carbon footprint.

“That’s another reason we can expect to see more of these.

“The big problem we will have to overcome in the near future is how to store all this energy.

“At the moment, we turn power stations on and off as and when we need them but with things like wind and solar energy, they have to be collected at a certain time - either when the wind blows or when the sun passes overhead.”

One of the major stumbling blocks to the Oakapple solar farm application was the restrictive use of land designated green belt, which would normally prohibit large-scale projects such as this. Indeed, some fear other applicants could use the Oakapple decision (if approved) as a precedent to argue for other green belt projects.

According to the council’s own policy, only under special circumstances can green belt land use be varied but councillors in Leeds have used some creative thinking in order to get around the project.

Andy Brearley, planning and design manager at Oakapple, explained: “The national Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that when located in the green belt, developers of renewable energy projects will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed. Such very special circumstances may include the wider environmental benefits associated with increased production of energy from renewable sources”.

“Oakapple Renewable Energy consider that ‘very special circumstances’ do exist given the proposal’s substantial contribution to renewable energy generation and the off-set of carbon release, as well as the proposal’s limited impact on the character and appearance of the greenbelt.

“It should be noted that although the site lies within green belt, part of it was previously used for landfill and before that it was opencast mined for coal extraction. So in a way, the site was used for energy production in the past.”

At a meeting earlier this year, councillors agreed to defer the final decision on the West Ardsley solar farm to officers, unless the application is changed significantly in the meantime.

That means council officers will likely approve the plans in June, with the solar farm could up and running by the end of the year.

Prof Gorse added: “We have to begin using more sustainable energy sources. At present, energy prices are set to increase again and this in turn will have an effect on the economy as a whole. The technology of solar panels will improve and we will see more of them, along with more wind farms.

“That said, as this kind of initiative increases, we need to be careful to preserve our landscape - and we have some pretty amazing landscape in Yorkshire - so we need to make sure we are finding the best locations for each project.”

Coun Paul Kane (Lab, Dewsbury West), whose ward borders the site, said: “We’re in the era of renewables - this is in tune with current thinking but I understand people’s concerns.”

Only time will tell whether the West Ardsley solar farm, which is roughly the same size as Ardsley Reservoir just to the north, will become an accepted part of the local landscape or something people will come to loathe.

Consultation reveals mixed opinions about solar farm

Consultation over the West Ardsley solar farm plans was extensive, taking in dozens of residents, councillors from three neighbouring local authorities, together with the Highways Agency and other bodies.

Responses from residents were mixed but on the whole favourable. A handful were strongly opposed to the development, claiming it was unnecessary and would impinge upon local walks.

Others raised concerns over its visual impact and, indeed, the Highways Agency itself demanded a ‘glint and glare’ study to examine whether motorists travelling along the M1 would be affected by it.

A study carried out by consultants Wardell Armstrong found the section of the M1 from which the solar farm would be visible (that being just south of Junction 41) would not be affected by glare.

Coun Eric Firth (Lab, Dewsbury West), whose ward borders the site, said: “I’m still a coal man myself. We are sitting on an island of coal, the technology now exists to burn that cleanly and to capture the carbon from the emissions. People in Europe think we’re mad because we now import coal.”

West Ardsley Labour Coun Jack Dunn said he was in favour of the project and did not want to appear ‘Luddite’.

He said: “If we are talking about green issues and wanting to go green, then projects like this are to be welcomed.”

“Objections have been listened to and the applicant has responded to those concerns. This will involve screening the site from view from certain points.”