MATT HANCOCK: Why I am protesting against the UK’s largest solar farm that will pump out more carbon over its lifetime than it saves – and turn Suffolk villages into industrial zones
This time next week, you’ll find me standing in a supermarket car park more than 80-miles away from Westminster leading a protest against plans to build the United Kingdom’s largest solar farm.
To give you an idea, the proposed site would be the size of 2,115 football pitches and cover swaths of my West Suffolk constituency in glass and metal sheeting.
It is not just the outlandish scale of the development that concerns me and the community I’ve been honoured to represent for more than a decade.
As a former Energy Minister, I am a huge champion of renewable energy
For alongside the solar panels, will come giant batteries – some the size of a shipping container – to store electricity for the National Grid. They are a known fire hazard and have no place in any residential setting, let alone a rural village.
To be clear, I am a supporter of solar power. I have backed many solar installations in the right place with strong and even enthusiastic local support.
As a former Energy Minister, I am a huge champion of renewable energy and I am proud that 99 per cent of the solar panels on the roofs of houses, factories and offices in this country have been installed since 2010 under Conservative governments.
But the proposed battery and solar farm in West Suffolk would be a gross intrusion into the lives of my constituents, and a dangerous one at that.
The developers, Sunnica, have shown absolutely no regard for the people who live in the area or the devastating effect the proposals will have on their community.
The plans envisage a horseshoe of development around several of our villages, turning them from rural settlements into industrial zones.
And if you think this is an isolated example, think again. Talking to colleagues in the House of Commons, I’ve discovered that similar solar developments are springing up right around the country.
Large oppressive schemes have been threatened with no attempt to site them in the most suitable place, let alone win local support.
The heartbreaking events in Ukraine have reminded us of the importance of becoming energy self-sufficient once again.
It was encouraging to see the Government announce this week that the UK will phase out the import of Russian oil and oil products by the end of 2022. As we wean ourselves off of Russian gas, it is vital we renew our call for renewable energy – including solar.
Large oppressive schemes have been threatened with no attempt to site them in the most suitable place, let alone win local support
But we must also be smart in how we install it. Let’s put panels on the roof of every new home, let’s put them on factories. But we must not destroy our green and pleasant land in an effort to go green. That’s utterly counterproductive.
Worse still, I’ve been advised that the West Suffolk proposal won’t even help our carbon emissions – with estimates suggesting this vast development would pump out more carbon into the atmosphere over its lifetime than it actually saved!
This would make a mockery of our net-zero ambitions.
There is, bizarrely, no requirement for an independent carbon assessment to be carried out for all such developments. I have asked why – but am yet to receive an answer.
Then there is the matter of the giant batteries, which increasingly form part of planned solar developments.
These batteries are supposedly there to store the energy generated by the solar panels, but they can also make money for the landowners by storing energy that the National Grid wants to keep for times of high demand.
Even the most ardent supporter of renewable energy can surely see that putting a huge battery farm right next to villages is a bad idea.
There are significant safety issues, after all, not least the risk of serious fires. The last three years have seen 38 fires at battery energy storage depots around the world.
Water is no use for tackling such blazes. Fire authorities have said that once one of those fires starts, there is nothing that can be done to stop it except wait and hope that it does not lead to toxic fumes. We cannot risk this potential hazard harming our health, homes and wildlife.
In some cases, the developers of solar farms have tried to hide the fact that their true objective is installing battery storage units rather than panelling without the consent of local residents.
Such lack of transparency is an insult to the British public.
That’s why I have joined the protest against Sunnica – to save ancient villages and farmland from being changed forever.
It is not just the picturesque setting we are set to lose, it is our celebrated history too. The world famous Royal Worlington Golf Course is at risk from the development.
There would be a significant impact on Newmarket’s Limekilns – one of the most famous training grounds in the world, and one of the reasons that Newmarket is pre-eminent as the home of horseracing, which is incredibly important.
It is not only disappointing but alarming how those behind this proposal have failed to bring the community with them.
Sunnica has not, as far as I know, set foot in the villages and towns affected to answer residents’ questions since July 2019.
It is striking that when I held a public meeting together with Lucy Frazer, MP for South East Cambridgeshire, Sunnica didn’t bother to turn up.
They have treated residents with utter contempt through their arrogant, high-handed manner.
Sunnica has refused to meet me. It has refused to attend any public meetings and has been contemptuous and dismissive of my West Suffolk constituents.
I thought we were the only one with this problem, but it turns out the same playbook of speculative development around villages is regrettably and shamefully being used elsewhere too. On Wednesday, I attended a debate in Parliament on large solar farms.
I was shocked to hear how MPs from all parties, in all parts of the country, had similar tales to tell. Each one of their stories sounded worryingly familiar.
The overwhelming majority of MPs and the public believe we need to increase renewables and become more self-sufficient, when it comes to energy.
But big developers are damaging the case for renewable energy through their reckless and dismissive approach. We should be championing renewables in a way everyone can be proud of.
Proposals for solar farms are often sited on high grade agricultural land around the country, land which should be used for food production, not for battery plants.
We must not allow this ‘wild-west’ style approach from developers who, from where I am standing, are simply looking to ram through unsupported projects at the expense of livelihoods and our natural landscapes.
In many cases, the planned developments run to within a few hundred yards of people’s homes.
Yes, we need to increase our solar provisions, but we must do it in the right places, in already industrialised areas, rather than by harming our precious countryside.
Proposals like the ones in West Suffolk should be stopped and sent straight back to the drawing board. To deliver on the noble goal of energy self-sufficiency once again, we need to bring people with us by engaging with constituents rather than treating them like mere inconveniences.
I urge not just my constituents but people right across the country to protest against these and other such damaging proposals.
It is time our voices are finally heard.
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