Rutland columnist discusses the Community Energy Vision's plans for solar farms
One has only to read some of the publicity and community concerns around the country surrounding the plethora of large solar farms which are destined for planning consideration to realise that the nation is facing a dilemma, writes Ron Simpson. The majority of us want to be supportive of a low carbon approach to energy generation but on the other hand do not want to see a beautiful and productive countryside smothered in endless acres of solar panels containing chemically questionable materials. As always it is a question of balance and trying to find an outcome that meets the needs of society but respects the environmental rights of those who live and work nearby. To this end CPRE, the countryside charity, has come up with an innovative strategy.
Five county communities are to be invited to run a Community Energy Vision. So, what does this involve?
The Community Energy Visioning process is intended to show how renewables can be designed well in the countryside in a way that empowers rural communities. A Community Energy Vision is a written document which summarises how, under what circumstances, and where residents in a particular rural community (normally a specific parish) believe that renewable energy could be incorporated into their countryside. Crucially, a Community Energy Vision includes professional artistic illustrations of the local landscape as it would look with the renewable energy options proposed by residents. This document can then be used by the community to influence local and neighbourhood plans, lobby policy makers for a better approach to renewables done well, and even to explore opportunities for new community energy schemes.
Producing a Community Energy Vision involves running a series of three consecutive workshops with local residents in the chosen community. The workshops are designed to be iterative, and to adapt to the unique focus brought by local residents; there are no right or wrong answers and no specific pre-determined end point to be reached.
The first workshop is designed to be a discussion with residents about their connection to the local area and what parts of the surrounding countryside they particularly value, or perhaps feel have been lost. This provides an important basis for the next discussion by highlighting which parts of the landscape are most important to the community.
The second workshop focuses on local electricity demand and generation. The discussion ranges across existing electricity infrastructure already in the landscape and then uses a customised excel spreadsheet tool from the Centre for Sustainable Energy to explore the electricity needs of the local community. This is then used as the basis for attendees to consider a suite of different forms of renewable energy generation which could help meet their electricity needs. By the end of the second workshop residents will have considered how much of their electricity demand they would like to see met by local generation, and which types of generation they feel would be most appropriate for their landscape.
The third and final workshop takes everything that has been discussed in the previous sessions and gives residents the opportunity to use maps of the local area to identify very specific locations where they feel their preferred suite of renewables could best be sited within the landscape. This workshop also gives attendees the opportunity to comment on, and consider who, they would like to see own new renewable energy in their landscape, and to highlight any community benefits they would like to see alongside these installations such as funding to support community facilities or local biodiversity enhancement. An artist then illustrates the vision arrived at. Post project work can then help the community make their vision become a reality if they choose.
CPRE Rutland has submitted what has been described as an excellent expression of interest to be recognised as one of the pilot counties in the visioning project. A significant grant is attached to the work which seems a very positive and proactive approach to calculating, and then hopefully meeting, our future energy needs. Critically, it has at its heart, local community engagement, action and design. Only by such engagement can government and the planning authorities secure the goodwill and support they need to deliver a much desired zero carbon future.
Let’s hope the Rutland grant bid is accepted. It will be fascinating to know what the ‘actual’ future energy needs of a town the size of Uppingham or Oakham actually are. Perhaps we can then add a little more science and rationale to our next generation of local and neighbourhood plans.