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The UK is set to become the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) market in Europe in 2014, outpacing older markets like Germany and Italy. According to a new report from NPD Solarbuzz, Over 120 large-scale solar PV farms have recently received the green light for planning approval, and many are targeting completion within the next 12 months.

‘In the past six months, the Department of Energy and Climate Change released the United Kingdom’s Solar PV Roadmap and Solar PV Strategy reports, restating aspirations to hit 20 gigawatts (GW) of cumulative capacity by 2020’, noted Finlay Colville, vice-president at NPD Solarbuzz. ‘While reaching the long-term goal is expected to involve a blend of rooftop and ground-mounted systems, solar PV farms above 10 megawatts will provide the dominant contribution in 2014.’

By the end of April 2014, over 325 solar PV farms in the megawatt (MW) class will have been completed in the UK, and over 60 different sites will have an installed capacity in excess of 10 MW.

An additional 444 large-scale ground-mounted solar PV farms are currently at various stages of planning in the UK, with 124 having already received planning application approval – seeking installation ahead of April 2015, when the level of support under the Renewable Obligation scheme will be reduced.

Harmonious developments

At the same time, environmentalists are keen to ensure that the mass roll out of solar installations works in harmony with the surrounding habitats, so that the benefits to wildlife are maximised.

Harry Huyton from the RSPB notes that windfarms like Whitelee and Blacklaw were developed alongside large peatland restoration programmes, to benefit wildlife including curlew and snipe. With a similar goal, the National Solar Centre this week published its Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments, the result of a collaboration with the RSPB, Plantlife, Buglife and the National Trust.

Solar farms present an opportunity for wildlife; the panels provide a partly shaded area (the panels only hang over 25-40% of the land) where no fertilisers or ploughing are required and vegetation is allowed to grow. Wildflower meadows, ponds and hedges can all be allowed to grow to provide food and shelter, and areas can be left uncultivated.

According to Harry, ‘If the industry follows this Guidance and gives nature a home on their solar farms there is no reason why they can’t become a valuable part of the agricultural landscape, helping – in a small but valuable way – to reverse biodiversity declines and combat climate change. Context is important here; the industry’s aspirations amount to something like 60,000 hectares over the coming decade. That’s about half the amount of land used for golf courses, or a tiny fraction of the land needed to grow biofuels.

‘The solar industry is to be applauded for the enthusiasm with which they have developed this guidance and their aspirations to give nature a home; indeed, other renewable energy sectors could learn from their example. This is particularly true given the rollercoaster ride the industry is being given by the Government, who have recently vowed to curb their growth, and whose relentless focus on supporting only the cheapest energy threatens to undermine schemes that go the extra mile to ensure they are an asset to the countryside.’

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