North Herts Green Belt land to be transformed into solar farm as demand for renewable energy wins out
By Will Durant - Local Democracy Reporter
22nd Nov 2022 | Local News
Green belt land to the north of Stevenage is set to be transformed into a solar farm the size of 119 football pitches.
The proposal for low-carbon energy firm AGR to build around 150,000 photovoltaic solar panels on land directly west of the A1(M) near Great Wymondley and Graveley has been passed.
A planning committee debated AGR's planning application on Thursday, November 17, with the proposals receiving cross-party support despite concerns around unreasonable development of the green belt.
The 84.7-hectare solar farm, straddling Graveley Lane, would link up with the Wymondley substation to allow a maximum of 49.995 Megawatts of electricity (MWe) to be exported into the National Grid during peak operation – enough to supply 12,000 homes.
At the debate, held in Letchworth, Councillor David Levitt (Con, Letchworth South East) unsuccessfully urged councillors to refuse planning permission.
He said: "This will provide a lot of renewable energy but it's weighing this up against the green belt.
"It's 'inappropriate development' because this amounts to a loss of green belt.
"The land would become 'previously developed' land so it could be open to development in the future."
Cllr Levitt pointed out that a council report into the solar farm notes that the energy produced would be enough to offset approximately 20,000 cubic tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, when compared with a gas generator.
He suggested it is unfair to make this comparison.
Cllr Levitt said: "We're not building new gas generators so we do not know whether we are saving 20,000 tonnes of CO2."
Hugh Chatfield, a member of the public who lives in Great Wymondley, raised concerns about a proposed fire suppression system and said he feared low-rise panels could mean motorway noise from the three-lane A1(M) would begin to impact nearby villages.
He said: "Such an environmental development would have stopped us from moving to the village last year."
Cllr Daniel Allen (Lab, Letchworth Grange) urged his colleagues to accept this development on the basis of environmental necessity.
He said: "We need to follow through on our climate emergency status."
Tim Lee, who is not a councillor but represented the Green Party by speaking as a member of the public, said: "We share quite a lot of the concerns, however, we feel that overall this is a necessary thing to go ahead because of the climate emergency."
Mr Lee added: "The concerns we have in particular around this site are around biodiversity and we would hope that plan is made more explicitly.
"There are better plans which could be happening, but… this will enable that 'bridging' of power in the timescales that we need to happen."
Phil Roden, of AXIS planning agent on behalf of AGR, said the developers looked at sites which were not on the green belt but concluded the land near Great Wymondley was appropriate on the grounds that it is near a National Grid connection point.
"Recently, National Grid has stated it will need to build seven times as much infrastructure in the next seven to eight years than they have built in the last 32," Mr Roden said.
He said this is to support the move to a net-zero electricity system by 2035, one of the government's interim targets for meeting net-zero in all sectors by 2050.
Mr Roden said the proximity to the substation means AGR will not need to wait for National Grid to improve its infrastructure to connect the site, and energy would be generated from 2024.
Along with the solar panels, 22 battery storage containers, one control room, 40 four metre high CCTV cameras and 20,370 square metres of woodland planting are included in the application.
The developer has committed to spending £800,000 in total on community and environmental schemes in North Herts throughout the solar farm's 40-year lifespan.
Sheep would be allowed to graze on low-maintenance grassland in the site.
In granting the application, the developer must adhere to several conditions imposed by North Herts Council.
These include limiting noise during construction and a promise that the developer will return the land to its original condition when 40 years of operation comes to an end.