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Blog 7 May 2022

This is the first blog in a series which aims to provide information and comments about the proposed solar plant on rural land in between Ayot St Lawrence and Ayot St Peter.

West Welwyn Solar Farm is the name chosen by the developer and is misleading - the solar plant is proposed to be on green belt land between the small hamlets of Ayot St Lawrence and Ayot St Peter: a pretty rural area about six miles from each of Welwyn Garden City and Harpenden, characterised by small villages and incredibly beautiful countryside.

I am hugely in favour of a shift to more sustainable living, to reduce the harm to the environment, and to increase the use of renewable energy. But it was only when a developer decided to try to build a large solar plant in the middle of pristine Hertfordshire country side that I gave real thought to renewable energy and what that meant in practice. The more I read, the more nuanced the discussion becomes. What is the most efficient energy source for this country? Is it solar? Where should the renewable energy sources be placed? What impact will this have on the population and the wider environment? The answer is not clear but it is obvious that simply building a solar plant is not the green solution that it seems to be.

A green agenda - and more importantly positive global action to do something about it - is vital. However it cannot be seen in isolation and it needs to be part of a wider balanced strategy for the country. There are a huge range of competing issues that need to be balanced against each other.

Here, we are faced with the prospect of a large solar plant in a beautiful rural area. This development is proposed by a wealthy landowner, to support a single user - a multi-national company with a data centre in Welwyn Garden City.

Maybe the move to green energy means that it has priority over everything, and any place is fair game regardless of the impact on people and places. However, this cannot be right, certainly not now. There are a huge range of better options which must be used first, especially for solar which takes up a lot of space. Surely industrial areas, wasteland, land that has no agricultural use, on the roofspace of commercial property (not least the end user data centre, whose large roofspace has no solar panels on it), and land by the side of motorways should be used first? Is solar the optimal use of land to create energy? Particularly in this country, where sunshine is far from abundant in the summer, let alone the winter months. What about wider harms, the impact on wildlife, the removal of accessible rural areas for people to enjoy?

The Ayots is surely one of the last places where a solar plant should be built, not the first. It is beautiful green belt land and is productive agricultural land. It has a network of footpaths which are enjoyed by many. It adjoins a conservation area and the National Trust Shaw’s Corner. If this beautiful, rural agricultural land is converted to a solar plant, it is hard to see where it would not be permitted.

Why this is so important is that solar plants last at least 30 years. They take up a lot of space, are visible and are surrounded by metal fencing. This proposal needs a power cable into Welwyn. The whole thing will need to be managed, technology will develop (maybe making today’s unproductive) and it will need to be decommissioned.

The choices made by local planning authorities over the next months and years, unless and until the government comes up with a national policy will have a profound impact on local communities for a large part their lives. The choice of locations that are allowed for renewable energy is key.

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