Solar farm proposals with a generating capacity of greater than 50MW, under the Planning Act 2008, are classified as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) requiring a Development Consent Order (DCO). Smaller solar farm proposals with a generating capacity of below 50MW can be determined by the relevant Local Planning Authority (LPA) through the normal planning application process.
The Government Energy White Paper (2020) states that onshore wind and solar will be key building blocks of the future generation mix, which along with offshore wind and sustained growth in the capacity of solar and onshore and offshore wind will be needed in the next decade to ensure the country is on the path to a low-cost, clean electricity system by 2050. The Climate Change Committee's Sixth Carbon Budget (The UK's path to Net Zero, December 2020) report highlights that a portfolio of zero and low-carbon energy generating technologies will be needed to meet future electricity demands including expanding new solar generating technology capacity by 3,000MW on average every year to 2030 and beyond.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2021) states that "The planning system should support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change. It should help to: shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, minimise vulnerability and improve resilience; … and support renewable and low carbon energy and associated infrastructure." The purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development as defined in the NPPF. Achieving sustainable development means that the planning system has three overarching objectives, which are interdependent and need to be pursued in mutually supportive ways. These are economic, social and environmental objectives.
"The Local Planning Authority will support proposals for renewable energy projects including micro-generation, offshore wind farms (plus land based ancillary infrastructure) solar farms, solar panels on buildings, wind farms, District Heating Networks and community led renewable energy initiatives at appropriate locations in the Borough, which will need to be subject to a Habitats Regulations Assessment and if necessary an Appropriate Assessment, to help reduce Colchester's carbon footprint.
Renewable energy schemes with potential for adverse effects on internationally or nationally designated nature conservation sites, sites or nationally designated landscapes (Dedham Vale AONB) and heritage assets, will only be supported in exceptional circumstances, where it can be demonstrated that the designation objectives for the area will not be compromised, that adverse impacts can be adequately mitigated or where it can be demonstrated that any adverse impacts are clearly outweighed by the social and economic benefits provided by the energy proposal.
All applications for renewable energy proposals should be located and designed in such a way to minimise increases in ambient noise levels. Landscape and visual impacts should be mitigated through good design, careful siting and layout and landscaping measures. Transport Assessments covering the construction, operation and decommissioning of any wind farm or solar farm proposal will be required and should be produced at the pre-application stage so acceptability can be determined and mitigation measures identified. A condition will be attached to planning consents for wind turbines and solar farm proposals to ensure that the site is restored when the turbines or panels are taken out of service."
Policy ENV1 (Environment) states:
"Development proposals that have adverse effects on the integrity of habitats sites, Sites of Special Scientific Interest or significant adverse impacts on the special qualities of the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (including its setting) (either alone or in-combination) will not be supported."
Support for renewable energy
Planning applications for renewable energy schemes in appropriate locations will be supported by the Council. It is accepted that there will be an impact, as there is with any development, but any adverse impacts can be minimised and mitigated. Large scale renewable energy schemes are Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) development and so large-scale applications are accompanied by an Environmental Statement (ES), which fully considers environmental impacts. ES often recommend appropriate conditions to secure any necessary mitigation. The principle of renewable energy will not be questioned by the Council. The Council has declared a climate emergency and renewable energy schemes will contribute to reducing carbon emissions across the city. A solar farm generating 49.99 megawatts (MW) could generate enough power to provide electricity to over 16,000 homes. Renewable energy schemes play a major role in reducing carbon emissions across the city, contributing to the climate emergency and supporting the sustainable development objectives in the NPPF, and will be supported in principle.
Whilst the climate emergency declaration of net zero emissions by 2030 relates to the Council as an organisation, the Council in declaring a climate emergency in July 2019, acknowledged that urgent action is needed to limit the environmental impacts produced by the climate crisis.
As stated in the Council's Climate Emergency Action Plan 2022/23, "Energy is linked into all parts of our lives, from powering our individual homes to larger businesses. Energy demand, particularly for electricity, is increasing as people look to decarbonise their lifestyles and electrify their heating and vehicles. To support this demand, extra energy supply is required and the Council, through its wholly owned energy company Colchester Amphora Energy Limited, is looking to generate more renewable energy."
Solar farms can deliver significant biodiversity net gain. To maximise environmental benefits, the Council encourages all solar farm proposals to deliver biodiversity net gain of at least 50% and an increase in tree canopy cover of at least 50%.
The Council's ambition is that all development should achieve an energy balance on-site. This means that renewable energy generation should be equal to or greater than the development's operational energy consumption (or energy use intensity) over the course of a year. For clarity this means both regulated and unregulated energy use, but excludes the energy used for electric vehicle charging.
The aim should be to provide net zero or low carbon heating systems for heating and hot water so that new development does not connect to the gas grid. This is the direction we need to take to build sustainable, future proofed buildings. Net Zero carbon buildings do not burn fossil fuels for energy. Net Zero carbon in operation can only be achieved by increasing renewable electricity generation. Solar PVs represent a mature and easy to use technology and heat pumps are an efficient low carbon heat source. Solar Thermal is the process of capturing energy from the sun via the use of solar panels, to heat water for use in the home. Solar thermal offers much lower heating costs than traditional gas or electric-powered heating systems and produces fewer CO2 emissions.
Generating electricity onsite, at the point of use, provides cheap electricity close to demand that can offset electricity consumption at full retail price; directly powers building systems or charge electric vehicles from rooftop solar energy; and immediately decarbonises electricity supplies (rather than having to wait for the UK grid to decarbonise). It is also more efficient in terms of the grid because very little energy will be lost through transmission and distribution because it's a short distance from generation to where it is used.
Heat pumps are an energy efficient means of heating. They can achieve CO2 emissions reduction when powered by a less carbon-intensive electricity grid. Heat pumps can provide both space heating and domestic hot water and can serve individual homes and buildings or communal heating systems. They are a solution for all building types at all scales when buildings are designed to high energy efficiency standards. For major development, consideration should be given to installing a communal heating system, or heat network, rather than individual heat pumps for every building. Heat pumps need to be sensitively located so as not to cause detriment to public and residential amenity.
Solar photovoltaics (PV)
Solar photovoltaics (PV) are ideally suited to buildings. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels generate electricity when exposed to sunlight. They are the most appropriate form of renewable energy generation for a building as they are a simple, mature, and durable technology and can be installed on both roofs and suitable facades. Solar photovoltaics should be considered at the very earliest of design stages in order that the roof shape and orientation is optimised to maximise solar photovoltaic output and returns for occupants.
A heat network is a way to distribute heat from heat source(s) via underground pipes to multiple buildings. Heat can be generated, e.g. from a heat pump, or recovered, e.g. energy from waste. In the UK, heat networks are predicted to provide 18% of heat demand by 2050. The Council is delivering the Northern Gateway heat network. The Northern Gateway heat network will use an open loop ground source heat pump as the primary heat source to provide a low carbon heat solution to 200 houses, 450 flats, 35,000 m² of office space and 9,000 m² of healthcare facilities. The project is the first of its kind to be used on this scale in the UK, using a confined chalk aquifer, and will deliver 5.5 GWhrs of heat a year with 75% of hot water for heating and washing being generated by the heat pump.
At the time of writing this SPD, the government is consulting on heat network zones. These are areas where heat networks would be optimal to install based on heat demand in the area, density of the heat demand and potential sources of low carbon heating.
The Council encourages applicants to consider installing a heat network and/or connecting development to an existing heat network.
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