“Sunnica, panels are calling me!”

Sorry – wrong company and wrong Millennium. That was Konica, see below. I’ve used the screenshot of the Combined Authority’s Independent Climate Change Report because it’s schemes like these that we’ll see more of and promoted as part of the county’s contribution towards its net zero target.

Which is why this one in particular needs scrutinising in detail. In the meantime, step back into the 1990s.

This post is not about them, but rather Sunnica Ltd and their plans for a massive solar farm on largely agricultural land. The have submitted an application for a Development Consent Order for a very large solar farm on the Cambs/Suffolk Border. It’s so big even the D-Mail is writing about it.

TL:DR? See the 300+ documents here, and if you feel strongly you can register as an interested party here in order to submit your comments on the proposals.

Not so long ago, the Secretary of State announced that he had accepted the application for this case to go through the Development Consent Order rather than through the local planning system. This normally happens for very large infrastructure whose impact goes beyond a local scale and is of regional or national significance. Local communities generally don’t like this because it takes matters out of the hands of their local councillors, and all too often feel that they are left with most of the costs while someone else, somewhere else gets the benefits. But then ‘economies of scale’ is an argument against them – larger operations, proponents will say, are more efficient than smaller ones.

“Why are they building all these renewable electricity plants on the wrong sorts of land?”

I remember at university in 2000, learning about Brazil’s early ethanol-fuelled cars, wondering why the UK didn’t have similar. I remember reading proponents of biofuels stating that marginal land not used for growing food crops would be ideal for providing the raw materials to convert into ethanol, perhaps as an alternative to grazing. It doesn’t seem to have worked out that way – with large percentages of arable land being used as fodder for livestock and for biofuels, resulting in a reduced supply of food and thus higher food prices. Which again gets me thinking about the economic, political, and legal structures, systems, and processes that led to such “sub-optimal outcomes” – to use corporate-speak.

The Sunnica case feels very similar: arable land better suited for growing crops being used for something else that doesn’t provide food.

Above – the boundary of Sunnica’s proposed development

In this bread basket of the country (fenland), there are a number of proposals for re-wilding – such as in the Wicken Fen vision, which may touch on the western end of Sunnica’s proposals.

Above – the proposal for extending Wicken Fen all the way to Cambridge. See more in the Wicken Fen Vision here.

I remember decades ago a map published by The Ecologist Magazine which labelled the most suitable types of renewables to build in different parts of the country. I don’t know what happened to it. What we currently have are various maps of what has been built or is being proposed for where. Take the Renewable Energy Planning Database from Central Government – and Cambridge as a case study.

Above where Cambridge’s renewables currently are – ones that can generate at least 1 MegaWatt of power

Which then makes me wonder why a host of industrial and storage sites are not covered in solar panels, or have medium-sized wind turbines on site.

Let’s take the retail parks by Newmarket Road, Cambridge.

Above – ***lots*** of roof space to install solar panels on, and lots of car parking space that could have overhead solar panels and some small-medium wind turbines by them of a size that does not disturb residents with the low-level hum associated with larger turbines.

Or so it seems. Rather than saying “build all of this stuff there now!”, I’m more interested in what the institutional barriers are that prevent this. Now, it could be as simple as the lifetime carbon footprint of what is being installed is greater than the amount of carbon emissions that would be saved – something that stung David Cameron in 2007. Hence coming back to that old Ecologist article that I can’t find online. What would renewables surveys of the city – cities, and transport infrastructure show?

“Wind turbines by motorway junctions? They make enough noise anyway, and hardly anyone lives by them, right?”

This was something explored by the company Alpha 311 and featured in some of the print press – attaching small vertical wind turbines to motorway street lamps to make use of the passing wind generated by fast-moving cars.

Above – the concept from Alpha 311.

Here, the role of Central Government and its agencies could come into play. Imagine the department responsible for Energy (it has changed so many times over the years I’ve lost track) having its equivalent of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, but for renewables. Its function would be to test and re-test all of the different types of proposals for renewables, and provide guidance for local councils, infrastructure organisations (such as Network Rail & the Highways Agency), and power companies on what might be suitable for different types of land uses and geographies.

“Why are we not seeing high profile pilots of industrial estates being retrofitted with renewables? Why are we not seeing Cambridgeshire’s science and tech parks doing similar – and providing the high profile publicity to go with it?”

You can understand why local residents get frustrated when they see the news about the climate emergency juxtaposed to new housing developments that look like the same mass-produced estates of the late 1980s, or showing few signs of renewables being installed as a matter of routine with planning applications.

Furthermore, I think we also need to see renewables incorporated into local development/strategic plans. The Greater Cambridge Local Plan has for its emerging new plan 2030-41 a 95-page Renewables Framework. Dated 2012. It’s already out of date for the current local plan. But that’s not to say we cannot learn from it. It has a useful map that in part is what I called for earlier: Assessing topographies for suitability for renewables. In this case, large wind turbines.

Above – from the Cambs Renewsables Infrastructure Framework, p34. in the Greater Cambridge Local Plan Document Library under the Climate Change sub-heading.

This is what I’d like to think more people want to see: Which are the areas of our county have the technical potential for different types of renewables?

In fact, anyone with an interest in Cambridge & South Cambs’ futures could browse through the document library. Pick the theme that you’re most interested in, and invite others to pick ones for them. If enough people do it, chances are they’ll all be covered.

Their papers making up the evidence bases have theme titles that include:

  • Infrastructure
  • Homes
  • Jobs
  • Great Places
  • Wellbeing and Inclusion
  • Biodiversity & Green Spaces
  • Climate Change (incl Water, Electricity/Net Zero)
  • Strategy

All of the above are on top of:

  • The draft Greater Cambridge local plan 2030-41
  • Supporting Documents
  • Topic Papers – which summarise the content of the evidence base themes.

What would refreshed maps look like based on over a decade’s worth of technological advances look like now?

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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