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Planning matters

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Here Comes the Sun: Where to locate the next generation of solar farm sites
The UK has established a world first in becoming the first major economy to pass a net zero law, which aims to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.  To achieve this, development of standalone and integrated solutions will be needed to reduce the emissions associated with energy consumption within all facets of our society. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all seen the CO2 reduction impacts that can happen when our economy is effectively shut down, but the key is how do we make this reduction in emissions sustainable as the focus shifts to recovering and subsequently growing the economy with fossil fuel prices at a record low? Solar energy has long been part of the solution. The cost of solar has plummeted by over 70% in the last decade. Only a few weeks ago the UK Solar Trade Association CEO, stated: “Solar is playing a critical role in delivering a fossil-free grid and cleaner, cheaper power to Britain. As we look towards a net zero future, solar will become an increasingly greater part of the energy mix, tackling high power prices, climate change, and biodiversity loss.” Added to this, the UK Government announced earlier this year that it would reintroduce Contracts for Difference subsidies for new solar farm developments in 2021, providing a new route to market for prospective schemes. It is clear that solar PV is both impactful and deliverable in the UK, and with falling prices, improved system efficiency and increased Government support, the technology looks more attractive than ever. But what exactly does it take to deliver a commercially viable solar development?  We know a number of factors need to be considered when identifying a suitable site and that the process of site selection is complex and varied.  So how best to go about it?  This blog begins to unpick the challenges of solar development and explain what it takes to get from a greenfield (or empty roof) to a fully developed commercial installation, focusing on how to identify the most suitable sites for development in the UK. Operational Challenges Identifying networks with available capacity - As the UK network generation make up shifts from the traditional large power generators (oil/gas/coal/nuclear) to a more renewable-led make up, with solar and wind at the fore, how this generation is spread across the network has changed.  Smaller renewable generating sites are connecting within the network as ‘Embedded Generators’ – very different to the traditional large generator connections at the highest level (National Grid) which then filtered down through the network. As this embedded local generation becomes more widespread, we are seeing networks becoming more congested with resultant increases in the connection fees for new generators and program delays as the Network Operators are required to upgrade their networks to accommodate the new connections.  Understanding the current limitations and knowing where national and regional network upgrade works have already taken place is an essential part of robust renewables business planning. Identifying viable connection points – Identifying the type of connection that will be most appropriate for your project is also key.  The size of a project (in terms of output MW) dictates the best option for its connection.  For example, it may be feasible to connect a new 5MW generator to a National Grid substation, but it would certainly not present the most cost-effective solution. Equally, trying to connect a large project, for example 200MW, to a Distribution Network Operator substation is unlikely to deliver the most cost effective/best technical solution.  Knowing the intricacies of the grid connections and developing good links to the network operators is as critical as knowing the land area you have available in the feasibility stage of any project. Achieving a sufficient irradiance level – Another key factor is the irradiance level i.e. the solar resource available at the proposed site. Historically, development north of an imaginary line between the Humber and North Wales has been deemed unworthy of consideration, but the current granularity of irradiance data and economic returns associated with solar means this is now clearly incorrect. There are a significant number of solar PV installations operating successfully north of this line, indeed into Scotland, and a backlog of planning applications for additional generation in the north, indicating that investors and developers see this area as a positive location.  A number of factors have driven this change including: Technology advancements – panels operate with a slightly improved efficiency in cooler temperatures; thus the fall in actual available energy to convert is compensated by improved efficiency of conversion. Panel capacity has improved whilst prices have fallen. Larger capacity panels means installations can be developed using a smaller land area. Assuming suitable topography, this can be as little as 3.5 acres per MWp without adversely impacting row shading. In the north of the UK, and especially into Northern Scotland, daylight hours during the cool summers are significantly longer and the extension of morning and evening light extends the generation period over sites thus compensating for the lower irradiance level at higher latitude. Advances in technology and site search techniques mean that the north of the UK should be on the table.  And with typically lower land prices and further competition for development space in southern areas, appropriately sited solar arrays in the north can give very positive results in terms of site payback. Planning Challenges In pursuing any new solar farm project, one of the greatest challenges is finding a site which is not only operationally viable, but one which can achieve planning permission. Planning policies in Local Plans very rarely include specific land use allocations to support such proposals and, typically, only provide limited policy details as to how renewable energy development – in its broadest sense – will be considered in the determination of individual planning applications.  Planning Practice Guidance does, however, provide a useful steer as to the range of ‘planning considerations’ which Local Planning Authorities should take into account when determining the acceptability of large-scale solar farm schemes. Finding viable solar farm projects which are capable of performing well against all aspects of these considerations is no easy feat and, indeed, proposals which are located within the Green Belt face even greater hurdles in planning terms. Here, there is also the need to demonstrate very special circumstances which paragraph 144 of the NPPF confirms, unequivocally, “will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations”. Through careful site selection at the outset, we have been successful in overcoming the policy hurdles and obtaining permissions, including in the Green Belt. Locate:Solar Lichfields, in partnership with ITPEnergised, has developed an innovative, site-finding toolkit (“Locate:Solar”) which seeks to identify suitable and viable solar farm sites by addressing these technical and planning challenges head on. The output is an interactive aerial map, whereby users of the toolkit are able to obtain full details of viable solar farm locations which have been ranked according to their relative level of planning constraints, environmental sensitivities and technical suitability. For developers, this allows new solar farm proposals to be put forward which have the best prospects of securing planning permission, whilst also being able to demonstrate the absence of alternative more suitable sites: a central requirement of national policy. For landowners, Locate:Solar identifies the potential for new solar farm development within a given landholding and, in turn, opportunities to support existing rural businesses and landowners through a regular and reliable new income stream. For local planning authorities, Locate:Solar can identify suitable new renewable energy sites for inclusion in emerging development plans, forming an important, tangible part of the response to the climate change emergency, whilst supporting the principles of sustainable development and rural diversification. ITPEnergised is a specialist renewable energy consultancy enabling projects from concept to operation and asset management. Ruth Fain is an Associate at ITPEnergised. James Cox is an Associate at Lichfields.  


Planning for climate change: The influence of infrastructure
This is the second in Lichfields’ series of blogs examining the climate emergency in planning, following on from ‘Planning for climate change: Is London leading the way?’. The Committee on Climate Change’s (‘CCC’) report ‘Progress Report to Parliament’, published last month, identified investment in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure to be a key measure that is vital to achieving the UK’s climate targets in the short and long term. But what is it? The OECD[1] states that climate resilient infrastructure is planned, designed, built and operated in a way that anticipates, prepares for and adapts to changing climate conditions. Why do we need to climate-proof infrastructure? The World Economic Forum[2] has claimed that investment is vital to future proofing our communities for the decades ahead. By investing heavily in climate resilient infrastructure right now and adapting our transport networks, housing and businesses, we will be better set to counteract flooding, heatwaves, drought, cyclones, wildfires, and other extreme climate events. Infrastructure networks are already affected by the physical impacts of climate variability and change. For example, OECD modelling of the potential impacts of a major flood in Paris found that 30% to 55% of the direct flood damages would be suffered by the infrastructure sector, while 35% to 85% of business losses were caused by disruption to the transportation and electricity supply and not by the flood itself. This is particularly relatable to the logistics sector, which is arguably one of the most susceptible industries to the increasingly tangible effects of climate change. Extreme weather events, such as winter storms and floods, can disrupt and influence supply chains globally – particularly in the UK where a downturn in the weather conditions can wreak havoc on transport systems. However, this industry is also a major contributor to climate change. Transport is embedded in the door-to-door supply chains, and in the CCC’s Progress to Parliament Report, it revealed that surface transport is now the highest emitting sector in the UK. However, these key infrastructure networks will also play an essential role in building resilience to climate impacts in the future. What infrastructure do we need to invest in? Examples of climate resilient infrastructure that are key to reaching the UK’s climate change goals are explored below. 1.  Carbon capture and storage (‘CCS’) infrastructure: CCS encompasses technologies for capturing carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere, transporting and storing it deep underground in geological formations where it will be permanently contained. This storage requires pipelines to transport the CO2 to the storage destinations. The CCC estimates that up to 175 million tonnes of CO2 – around half the UK’s 2019 emissions – will need to be captured annually by 2050 to reach the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions.  We are already seeing progress in this industry globally, for instance, energy giants Equinor, Shell and Total have signed off on a plan to build what would be the world’s first carbon capture and storage network in Norway. The project will be developed in stages, with phase one developing the infrastructure to transport, inject and store up to 1.5 million tonnes of CO2per year in the seafloor thousands of metres (2,700 metres to be precise) below sea level. However, this infrastructure is currently very expensive and cost reductions are necessary to be able to deploy CCS cost effectively in the UK[3]. 2.  Low-carbon hydrogen: As an alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen production has the potential to contribute to decarbonisation in the UK. Hydrogen is a low-zero carbon, energy dense fuel that can be stored and transported over long distances. Climate experts therefore agree it is likely to be crucial for decarbonising the UK’s heavy road transport and manufacturing industries, which can’t get enough power from electricity alone. It could also prove crucial for cutting carbon emissions from home heating, by replacing natural gas in the gas grid. Currently the vast majority of hydrogen is produced using natural gas, which can only be made low-carbon by bolting on CO2 capture technology. Hydrogen can also be produced using renewable electricity via a process known as electrolysis. Earlier this year, the Government announced a low carbon funding package, where £70 million will fund two of Europe’s first-ever large scale, low carbon hydrogen production plants - the first on the banks of the Mersey, the second planned for near Aberdeen. 3.  Zero Carbon Freight: As discussed above, surface transport is now the highest emitter in the UK, and the logistics sector contributes significantly to this. The CCC makes recommendations within its recent report for the Government to implement a strategy to transition to zero-carbon freight (potentially through use of hydrogen), including stronger purchase incentives, schemes to reduce HGV and van use in urban areas (e.g. e-cargo bikes and use of urban consolidation centres), infrastructure plans and clean air zones. London is leading the way in the journey to zero carbon transport – with Sadiq Khan announcing on Friday plans for London’s entire tube network to be powered by renewable electricity by 2030. How will climate resilient infrastructure be achieved? As would be expected, this area of addressing the climate emergency is mostly dependent on coordination at a Government level. The CCC places a lot of emphasis on the measures and investment plans that will be implemented through the National Infrastructure Strategy that is due to be published later this year – following a delay announced in March 2020. It is suggested that all new infrastructure investments should assess and plan for the impacts of climate change. The private sector also has a role in supporting this action, through financing research and initiatives. Lastly, planning is a key driver in the delivery of climate resilient infrastructure. Well-aligned national and local planning frameworks are vital to guiding progress in support of climate resilient infrastructure. This is already being recognised, for example, this week, Defra published its ‘Flood and coastal erosion risk management policy statement’, setting out the Government’s policy on flood and coastal erosion risk management in the face of climate change. This document states that the government will "ensure that planning policy is being appropriately applied and effectively implemented on a consistent basis across the country”. Lichfields is well suited to help respond to the climate change emergency in planning, and across a range of specialities – our next blog in the series looks at how aviation is responding to the climate emergency. Contact us for further information. [1] Policy perspectives: Climate resilient infrastructure[2] Why it's time to invest in climate resilient infrastructure[3] UK carbon capture and storage government funding and support