Greg Jackson, boss of Octopus Energy which gives customers living near its turbines a discount of up to 50pc on electricity, recently said we should “change the way we think” about renewable schemes such as “serene” wind farms, arguing they should be seen as assets that give people cheap energy. But without a charm offensive in England’s shires, events in Pyworthy and other rural areas show Johnson’s energy revolution could end up costing the Tories.
Nestled on the western edge of Devon, the pretty but obscure village of Pyworthy has made a name for itself.
For years, its most notable feature has been a 13th-century church. Today, however, it is on the frontlines of Britain’s energy revolution in a battle over the construction of several gigantic solar farms.
The Derril Water development – which spans 28 fields, or 164 acres – is vehemently opposed by villagers and countryside activists who argue it and others nearby are ruining the landscape and degrading farmland. Among them is John Nettles, the Midsomer Murders star, whose farm borders the solar farm.
“In recent years, Pyworthy has borne its fair share of solar installations but this latest one would be the largest yet,” the 78-year-old says in a campaign video on YouTube. “Local residents feel enough is enough.”
It is a conflict set to be replayed throughout England’s Tory heartlands as Boris Johnson pushes ahead with an ambitious plan to overhaul Britain’s energy system and almost completely rid the electricity grid of fossil fuels by 2030.
By that point, 95pc of the country’s electricity will be generated from “low carbon” power sources, according to the energy security strategy published on Thursday.
The Prime Minister has proposed ramping up not just offshore wind – the most popular energy source among Cabinet ministers for its near-invisibility – but also nuclear power, solar power and onshore wind.
While plans for onshore wind farms have been notably watered down after triggering an early backlash, the Government has said it wants to develop as many as four new nuclear power stations, including the under-construction Hinkley Point C. It also envisions a fivefold increase in solar panel capacity – an expansion far bigger than previously expected.
Ministers want to make it easier to push such projects through the planning system. Yet to deliver on any of these aims, Mr Johnson will be forced to confront the reality that his Government aims to build unpopular projects near countryside homes.
“If we’re going to get prices down and keep them there for the long term, we need a flow of energy that is affordable, clean and above all secure,” he said in a forward to the new strategy.
“We need a power supply that’s made in Britain, for Britain – and that’s what this plan is all about.
“We’re going to take advantage of Britain’s inexhaustible resources of wind and – yes – sunshine”, he said, adding that “safe, clean, affordable” nuclear reactors are also front and centre.
Despite the bold ambitions, campaigners in some parts of the country have already fired a warning shot, telling ministers to expect “opposition in every parish”.
Those in the West Midlands recently railed against wind turbines, arguing they could despoil landscapes in the “coloured counties” once beloved by the poet A.E. Housman, while members of the Stop Sizewell C campaign say the proposed nuclear plant would be the “wrong project, at the wrong time, in the wrong place”.
The ramping-up of solar power is on course to spark similar flashpoints.
Under the Government’s plan, solar generation could rise from 14 gigawatts nationally to as much as 70 gigawatts.
That would equal to an extra 350 square miles of solar panels, roughly 90 times the area occupied by London’s Richmond Park, under the general rule of thumb that 1 megawatt of solar power requires four acres of space. Some, however, would be placed on rooftops.
For ground-based solar farms, the Government plans to consult on changes to planning policy to strengthen it “in favour of development on non-protected land”.
The strategy says communities will continue to have a say, and large projects will be steered towards “previously developed or lower value land where possible”.
But that is little comfort for locals who are bearing the brunt of development, says Dr Phil Bratby, an energy expert and trustee of Campaign to Protect Rural England’s (CPRE) Devon branch.
Along with others, Bratby has raised concerns about building solar farms on valuable farmland as well as the visual impact of huge developments he says sometimes stretch a mile across.
The latest project in Pyworthy will have 70,000 solar panels alone.
“These solar farms, they are really large,” Bratby explains. “We’re talking about tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individual solar panels.”
“You can’t hide these things in the landscape. It’s visible from the local lanes, it’s visible from the footpath and it’s visible from higher ground,” he adds.
“We’re seeing a massive industrialisation of a typical Devon landscape made up of small fields and hedges and some of the villages get surrounded because there is a substation nearby – it becomes a sort of honey pot for developers.”
The Derril Water solar scheme, proposed by Renewable Energy Systems, was approved last year by Torridge District Council despite local objections. The CPRE is seeking to raise £50,000 to challenge the decision in the High Court.
According to Bratby, campaigners’ feelings are strong enough to make them confident the funds will be mustered.
“The residents of Pyworthy believe they are under siege and that their voices are being drowned out by those of the big developers,” says Nettles, who also starred in Bergerac, in the video produced by CPRE.
Local MP Sir Geoffrey Cox, the former Attorney General, has also expressed concerns about the scheme after meeting with residents last year.
“I understand the very strong concerns of many local residents that the character of this beautiful landscape will be damaged by the cumulative effect of solar parks nearby,” the Tory wrote on Facebook.
“I would very much prefer to see high quality agricultural land like this being used for traditional agricultural purposes.”
Some efforts are underway to boost community support for schemes like those in Pyworthy, with ministers pledging to offer villagers who accept nearby wind farms discounts on their electricity bills.
Greg Jackson, boss of Octopus Energy which gives customers living near its turbines a discount of up to 50pc on electricity, recently said we should “change the way we think” about renewable schemes such as “serene” wind farms, arguing they should be seen as assets that give people cheap energy.
But without a charm offensive in England’s shires, events in Pyworthy and other rural areas show Johnson’s energy revolution could end up costing the Tories.
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