A toxic blot on the landscape: Solar farms are ruining views and causing misery for residents – and, critics say, they’re filled with noxious chemicals, many are made by Chinese prisoners… and don’t even work in gloomy British weather
When Christopher and Heather Darwin retired to the Devon countryside 13 years ago, their view was a rolling green upland dotted with sheep and cows.
Today, they can hardly bear to look.
A sea of glinting solar panels stretches out, bank upon bank, across the fields surrounding the village of Pancrasweek near Bude.
The solar farm by the Darwins’ house is one of six within a three-mile radius and many locals already feel like prisoners in this new landscape of security fences, warning signs and cameras.
Worse, there is another one planned just a few fields away – a monster which, at 164 acres, would be the biggest in the county.
‘I am very green but these schemes are not green at all,’ says Heather. ‘They are all about money.
‘Aside from looking at those hideous panels, our lives will be dominated by acres of metal, glass, CCTV and generator boxes.
It has been calculated that most UK solar farms, including those in Devon (pictured) will never get beyond 12 per cent of their true generating capacity in the course of a year, due to the cloudy British weather
‘It’s not the country life I’d imagined I would retire to.’
Across Britain, solar farms are on the march.
Some 1,000 acres of rural land a month are earmarked for ‘photovoltaic’ panels and the miles of cabling that go with them.
The Government admits that more than a fifth of our farmland will eventually be lost to ‘green’ initiatives such as these.
Last week, The Mail on Sunday counted 270 solar farms under construction or waiting for planning permission around the country.
Environmental lobbyists argue that solar energy is a crucial part of a sustainable future, but they talk less about the growing doubts raised by scientists and angry groups of residents.
Christian Darwin and his wife Heather on their Scotland Farm, in the Devon countryside, which they say is being blighted by ‘hideous’ solar panels
Because, apart from ruining the view, solar panels are also woefully inefficient at their only job – which is to generate electricity amid the cloud and rain of north-west Europe.
Then there is the question of disposal.
The materials the panels are made with have a life expectancy of less than 50 years and are difficult and expensive to recycle, raising the prospect of discarded panel mountains leaking dangerous heavy metals.
And with the majority of panels now made in China, there are fears – all too plausible – that some have been produced in forced labour camps, including those where members of the oppressed Uighur minority are imprisoned.
‘A power supply that is always both unpredictable and intermittent is not sensible,’ says Christopher Darwin.
‘In a few years’ time, if winter power cuts increase as expected, people will wonder why solar industrial sites in the countryside were considered anything other than expensive white elephants.’
The protesters have been joined by actor and local resident John Nettles, who keeps a smallholding nearby.
Best known for roles in Bergerac and Midsomer Murders, today Nettles features in a video which lambasts the spread of solar farms and, in particular, the proposed mega-development near the village of Pyworthy.
‘Enough is enough,’ he says. ‘People need to understand the enormous scale and visual impact.
‘The giant new project at Derril Water would desecrate the pastoral vista in this part of Devon, turning it into an industrialised landscape of solar panels and security fencing.
‘It would ruin 164 acres of pasture for at least 40 years. Decision-makers… have failed to take into account the carbon footprint of manufacturing 76,000 solar panels on the other side of the world, transported and installed here.
‘They are simply not low-carbon.’
So unsuitable is the British weather, it has been calculated that most UK solar farms will never get beyond 12 per cent of their true generating capacity in the course of a year.
Solar energy contributed a measly seven per cent of National Grid power last month, even though April was unusually sunny and dry.
In December, the solar contribution was a pathetic 0.67 per cent of the total.
Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) think-tank, says solar energy makes no sense in this country and the many miles of panelling are likely to do more harm than good.
‘There is simply not enough sun,’ he says.
‘Perhaps in the Sahara, where no one lives, having these huge, tens of miles of solar panels may make sense.
‘But in Britain I’m concerned about the unintended consequences.
‘You would need to carpet about five per cent of Britain’s entire land in solar panels to generate enough energy to keep things working – and that’s only in the day.
‘Obviously they don’t work at night. They leave a huge ecological footprint.
‘A single nuclear power plant sits on a square kilometre or so of land.
‘For solar panels to generate the equivalent energy, you’d need 10,000 times more space – maybe even more.’
Relatively sunny, at least in British terms, the South West has been particularly affected.
The Devon branch of the CPRE (formerly known as the Campaign to Protect Rural England) says that nearly 4,300 acres of Devon farmland have already been lost to solar development.
‘When does it stop? When there are no fields left for sheep, cattle or wildlife?’ asks Penny Mills, director of Devon CPRE.
John Nettles, of Midsomer Murders fame, features in a video which lambasts the spread of solar farms and, in particular, the proposed mega-development near the village of Pyworthy
‘Tourism is vital to our economy. But do holidaymakers come to visit industrial landscapes or pretty green countryside?
‘These rural parishes are defined by livestock grazing and grassland with little quiet lanes.
‘The proposed 164-acre site would devastate habitats for endangered bird species, including bullfinches, fieldfares, redwings, skylarks and yellowhammers.
‘We fear the landscape will vanish under a sea of glass and metal.’
Another installation near the Darwins, The Derriton Fields Solar Farm, is a case in point.
At 35 acres, it is relatively small. But with its 10ft-high metal fence, closed-circuit cameras and countless warning signs, it looked more like an American prison compound when The Mail on Sunday paid a visit.
The 60-acre Crinacott Solar Farm, just a mile to the south west, was no more appealing.
Solar developers like to claim that sheep can graze alongside the rows of panels, but at Crinacott, the grass cannot grow in the permanent shadows cast by the panels.
There were no sheep and the only noise was the low humming from electrical transformers.
This could soon be the future for the fields at Derril Water, too.
Fury erupted this week over a proposed solar plant in Dorset which would be equivalent in size to 150 Wembley Stadiums, with some 150,000 panels covering fields of green land
At present, they offer both primeval ‘culm’ grassland – which provides tussocky grazing for sheep – and good-quality pasture for beef and dairy cattle.
But we also saw two men using what appeared to be ground-penetrating radar, which suggests the cattle’s days on the open farmland there are numbered.
Yet the sheer expense of dealing with old panels is a significant problem for the future.
The first models were built to last for about 20 years (although newer panels last longer), which means that many British solar farms are already well towards needing replacements.
Quite what will happen when the panels are decommissioned is unclear, not least because they contain toxic substances including cadmium.
Dr Peiser says this is already a danger in countries where solar energy was adopted earlier.
‘Often, old panels are not recycled, just dumped,’ he says.
‘Dig a hole, dump them, cover the hole. The countries with a lot of sun, particularly in the developing world, don’t have the recycling facilities. And they don’t really care.
‘In the UK we don’t have a big problem yet because the solar panel boom started only about ten to 15 years ago.
‘The real problem will happen in a few years when they are no longer efficient and have to come down. These issues haven’t been fully thought through.’
The panels themselves are cheap, mainly because Chinese factories account for 75 per cent of global manufacture. But there are ethical problems.
An investigation earlier this month claimed that up to 40 per cent of the UK’s solar farms use panels made by Chinese companies accused of using labour supplied by prison camps in Xinjiang province, home to the Uighurs.
According to The Guardian, these Chinese firms have connections with some of the UK’s largest solar companies.
Developers on the picturesque North Kent coast revealed plans last year to line 900 acres of farmland with solar panels, a larger green space than New York’s Central park
These include the Foresight Group, which owns Pitworthy Solar Farm next to the Darwins’ land.
Foresight pointed to a statement by trade association Solar Energy UK’s that the industry condemns any abuse of human rights in the supply chain.
Direct Government subsidies for solar farms were abandoned in 2019 (although earlier lucrative agreements are still in force).
But rents from solar farms far outstrip the precarious profits from conventional agriculture, with Devon landowners reportedly earning up to £2,000 an acre every year from solar.
Some sheep farmers in the county are said to earn as little as £6 an acre
This gulf is only likely to get bigger thanks to the Government’s ‘Net Zero By 2050’ initiative, according to Dr John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation.
Hard-pressed farmers have realised that they can make a profit – and are rushing to take advantage.
‘The net-zero drive is so insensitive to cost and environmental damage, a lot of very strange things are happening,’ says Dr Constable.
‘The brakes are completely off. It’s an unrestrained area of the economy. We’re preparing to lose a large part of British farmland to a second-rate electricity scheme.
‘We’ve got a growing population so within a couple of decades we’ll be 50 per cent dependent on imported food.
‘Is that a sensible way of using a finite resource, especially post-Brexit? It’s a very odd thing to do.’
Plans to build a 190 acre solar farm on countryside that inspired legendary novelist Thomas Hardy were met with a protest in Dorset this week
There could be worse to come.
Thanks to a loophole in the planning system, Dr Constable believes solar farms are a good way for developers to turn lower-grade farmland into ‘brownfield’ land, potentially allowing them to be built over in future.
‘Some landowners regard this as a nutcracker scheme,’ says Dr Constable.
‘Farmland is mostly protected from development – except for solar.
‘If you own several thousands of acres of land and you’d like to have an industrial estate, solar is a good way to crack the planning nut.’
Then there is the issue of the battery-storage industry, which has taken off in the past year.
‘Developers are interested in building large solar schemes so they can get permission to house a big battery,’ explains Dr Constable.
The batteries, housed in 40ft-wide containers, can hold a reserve of power for when the National Grid is under pressure.
And Dr Constable believes this could be the true reason for their popularity.
‘These batteries can store solar power, but owners will also use them to buy and store energy from the Grid when it’s cheap and then resell for a much higher price when it’s in demand,’ he says.
Locals near Longburton in the Blackmore Vale, Dorset opposed similar plans when they emerged last year
‘The fact it is very expensive for the consumer is neither here nor there. The solar schemes are almost incidental.’
Farmers and developers are not the only winners. Solar is also good business for local authorities, which charge fees for planning applications.
Devon County Council has already received £107,591 from the developers at Derril Water.
It can also charge the solar firms business rates, which farmers do not normally pay. Meanwhile, there is an investment boom as – responding to official pressure – large corporations attempt to show they are diversifying into fashionable green energy.
Environmental concerns are not lost on local vet Adrian Oliver, who drives a Tesla electric car and has installed solar panels on the roof of his home in Pyworthy.
Even he has joined his neighbours in objecting to the Derril Water behemoth, however.
‘The thought of living next to 10ft-high security fences with CCTV cameras on top of them is pretty horrific and that’s on both sides of our road,’ he says.
‘It’ll be a bit like walking down through a prison camp. Pretty much every single household has objected to this.’
(Additional reporting by Giulia Crouch)
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