Minister must act to avoid an invasion of solar sites in Northern Ireland
While I embrace renewable technologies in principle, their integration into our environment has to be done with forethought and care so that random opportunism does not prevail.
Northern Ireland was never considered a viable option for large-scale solar installations due to its latitude. As a result, planning legislation governing renewable energy applications, PPS18, was written only in consideration of wind farms and small-scale, roof-mounted solar PV installations. As a result, there is no planning legislation in place to govern the careful management of large-scale solar PV.
This is why I have urged Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, and Angus Kerr, the director of planning policy, to urgently amend policy in consideration of large scale Solar PV: to act now, rather than react later.
To give an idea of the scale of the problem, last year alone BElectric UK listed 30 new limited companies here in Northern Ireland, each representing a large-scale solar installation. They spread indiscriminately across all counties with Solar Farm Ltd companies pre-fixed with Belfast, Ballymena, Hillsborough, Holywood, Castlewellan and Coleraine.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of solar PV developers whose new focus is here since the Environment Secretary in England declared large-scale solar farms are "a blight on the landscape" and confirmed plans to cut a taxpayer subsidy. So the number of applications coming our way is likely to be in the hundreds - and we have no planning policy to deal with them.
The main concerns are: visual impact, loss of visual amenity, loss of residential amenity, impact on wildlife and loss of habitat, water run-off and contamination, decommissioning of the site and build up of solar waste at the end of their 25-year lease.
I have proposed a number of measures to the minister that could be woven into an amended policy before April 1 which would help manage the integration of large scale solar PV whilst safeguarding our natural environment. Most importantly, there must be a requirement for a decommissioning bond to ensure the removal of the solar panels at the end of the lease period and prevent an accumulation of solar panel waste.
With the above minimum measures, I believe large scale solar PV installations around 30-60 acres (5-10MW) can be integrated without costing us our landscape. However, without such a planning policy, solar PV is set to invade Northern Ireland completely unchecked.
We know already of a proposal for a 250-acre scheme (1.2 miles long) near Kells, and other proposals for Rasharkin and near Lisburn. These are in full view of public roads, abutting within feet of private gardens and extending over miles of open countryside. No reasonable person could call such proposals carefully considered development. This is purely random opportunism.
Ian Paisley MP has asked the minister for a moratorium on all planning decisions relating to large scale solar until a policy is written. Surely it makes sense to delay decisions that potentially affect large tracts of our landscape until we learn the outcomes of such nationwide research.
The Environment Minister has a unique opportunity to make his mark. He can rise above the mistakes made in England, he can manage the integration of large scale solar PV here before it becomes a problem, and he can protect Northern Ireland's greatest asset - its landscape.
If he doesn't, I'm afraid a large scale solar PV development will be coming to a field near you.
Jane Burnside is an architect and rural design specialist