Tim Bonnar writes for the Countryside Alliance www.countryside-alliance.org

Few issues generate as much heat and upset in the countryside as the development of renewable energy. Wind farms have long divided opinion and more recently the building of pylons across remote rural areas to transport renewable energy has caused major concern. Even more controversial, however, is the development of solar farms on agricultural land.

There is no question about the need for renewable energy generally to replace our reliance on fossil fuels and that solar, in particular, is a vital part of the future energy mix. The issue is not whether solar development should take place, but how it should take place.

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There are three factors that seem to cause particular concern. Firstly, that despite all the talk about food security at a time of global insecurity from politicians of all parties, solar farm proposals are often on productive agricultural land. In very simple terms this means that we will produce less food and we think that the suggestion that sheep can continue to graze on fields where solar energy development takes place is a red herring. The whole purpose of a solar farm is, after all, to intercept the sun’s rays and turn them into energy, which will obviously reduce grass growth and productivity of any grazing system.

Secondly, solar farm development tends to be close to electricity sub-stations because of the lower cost of connection. This can create clusters of proposed farms which exacerbate concerns in local communities.

Thirdly, there is a perception that agricultural land has become the default landing place for solar generation because it is easier and cheaper than alternative sites, rather than being the right option environmentally or socially. We will all have to accept that there are some changes which we might not like, but which are necessary to tackle climate change. That is a much more difficult pill to swallow, however, when it seems that one part of society is having to take more of the medicine than others. For instance, it is perfectly legitimate for people in a rural community which has a proposed solar farm development to ask why none of the thousands of houses being built in the local town, or massive new warehouses and distribution centres, have solar panels on their roofs.

As Rory Stewart challenged us so eloquently at the Future Countryside conference last month, if we are going to resolve conflicts, we all need to decide what we are willing to give up, rather than just what we do or do not want. We may not want the sort of development in the countryside that comes with renewable energy, but we have to accept that we will all have to give some things up to tackle climate change. That will be a much easier process if people feel that the burden is being shared equally across society and that the countryside is not being asked to carry an unfair burden to resolve the problems of the whole of society.

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