Spotlight on solar energy

Spotlight on solar energy

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

The solar energy industry has expanded rapidly in recent years due largely to a reduction in the cost of photovoltaic panels and the introduction of a Feed-in Tariff (FIT) in 2010. In a little over two years, the UK’s solar power-generating capacity has risen from around zero to 2.5GW (Excell 2013) and is likely to increase.

Around 25% of the UK’s energy generated by solar power comes from ground-mounted installations, or solar farms. The south-west has seen the greatest proliferation of such schemes but many are planned for elsewhere within the UK, including the east of England.

Whether or not a solar farm requires a formal Environmental Impact Assessment is largely determined by the Local Planning Authority (LPA). This type of development may be interpreted as “Energy Industry Development” or, depending on their location, as an “Urban Development Project” under Schedule 2 of the EIA Regulations. Even where an LPA does not consider a formal EIA is required, information on baseline conditions at the site and the potential for environmental impacts should be submitted with the planning application to enable full evaluation of the proposal.

Our East Anglia office has considerable expertise in assessing the potential ecological impacts of such schemes and we have expert botanists, entomologists and ornithologists as well as licensed bat ecologists, who can advise on how best to avoid, mitigate or compensate for wildlife. They can also demonstrate the scope for incorporating simple habitat management that could even result in a positive outcome for wildlife as a direct result of the proposal.

As with most development, the potential for impacts on wildlife arise during two main phases: the construction (and decommissioning) phase and the operational phase.

Potential impacts during the construction phase:

* Disturbance and displacement of wildlife through noise, traffic movement, increased human presence and light pollution

* Compaction of soils and construction of tracks and other impermeable surfaces may result in increased run-off and soil erosion, which may have a knock-on effect on nearby water courses

Potential impacts during the operational phase:

* Direct habitat loss; construction impact to panel frames and ancillary structures such as invertor boxes and grid connections: This may affect a range of species groups including birds and bats

* Changes in the vegetation structure and composition as a result of shading by the panels: As well as potentially leading to a loss of noteworthy plant species, such changes may also impact on invertebrates

* Attraction of invertebrates: certain aquatic invertebrates may be attracted to lay eggs on solar panels due to the reflection of polarised light, potentially increasing reproductive failure and mortality

* Indirect habitat loss through displacement: Ground-nesting birds such as skylark prefer open areas with clear sight-lines and are unlikely to nest between or below panels, particularly where these are positioned close together.

The silhouettes of panels may also affect the attractiveness of adjacent areas for species of the open countryside such as geese or cranes

* Isolation and fragmentation: Depending on the permeability of perimeter fencing, the passage of animals across the site and linkage between foraging, breeding and refuge areas may be affected. It may also affect predator-prey relationships and food availability

* Collision risk: as yet, the risk of collision of, for example, birds with solar panels and the significance of this as an impact is unquantified though concerns remain, particularly where solar farms are located close to water. Limited evidence suggests that bats may also attempt to drink from panels or collide with them. Fencing, overhead wires and supports may also pose a collision hazard, particularly for species such as swans

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