A Green ‘Catch 22’: When Clean Energy and Rewilding Clash

As renewables projects grow ever bigger in scale, the desire for clean energy is rubbing up against the needs of wildlife.

Salt marshes Salt marsh - will Cleve Hill ever be restored to something like this? (Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash)

There’s a lot of talk of a “Green Revolution” for the post COVID-19 world. What does this mean?

With the UK economy likely entering an historic recession, there’s a search for ideas to kickstart the country. A green recovery is one driven by investments in clean energy to tackle carbon emissions, lower air pollution and restore nature. A noble goal.

So then, it’s “all systems go”, solar panels in every field, a wind turbine on every hill, right?

It’s what renewables advocates have been telling us we should do for years. But this week something weird happened. There was a glitch in the matrix, you might say.

The Green Party, RPSB, Greenpeace and the Campaign to Protect Rural England came out in opposition to a proposed new solar farm in Kent. If that didn’t seem strange enough, Friends of the Earth then came out in support of it.

A schism in the green movement? What’s going on?

The proposed solar “power plant” (as opponents are calling it—apparently “solar farm” is too bucolic for such a monster) would see Cleve Hill in Kent host almost one million solar panels plus batteries (one million of these too, according to the Green Party) over 900 acres (600 football pitches) of Kentish farmland.

Green NGOs oppose it because it is just too BIG. Kent Wildlife Trust claim “significant numbers of Brent geese, lapwing and golden plover use the farmland. Marsh harrier breed and feed in the area, and may be displaced by the presence of the solar panels.” Local activists say the farmland should be restored to salt marsh, not turned into a solar plant.

Most of these NGOs support the construction of solar farms. And solar clearly has its place, especially on rooftops. But as soon as panels move off rooftops and into the fields, whether the panels are all together on a single, huge farm or spread out across many small ones, they still mean taking the same amount of land from nature. In fact, given that there is a minimum set of electrical equipment and power lines for a solar farm, a larger one is likely to be more land efficient than a smaller one. Cleve Hill has made many people realise for the first time that grid-scale solar power is a land-hungry pursuit.

In the same week, EDF was also in the news for publishing its planning application for Sizewell C, a proposed carbon-copy of Hinkley Point C. Chris Packham (of whom I’m generally a huge fan) and the RSPB splashed all over Twitter their opposition to Sizewell C. A quick search reveals Chris has never tweeted about Cleve Hill. This doesn’t seem to add up given the environmental impact of Cleve Hill compared to Sizewell C.

Kirsty Gogan (Energy for Humanity) responded “If @RSPBMinsmere and @suffolkwildlife don’t want #SZC (7 hectares) and want #solar to supply the same amount of energy as #SZC this would require 77 solar projects the size of #CleveHill or a total 298 square kilometres…Achieving #netzero means hard choices.”

Note: My understanding is that Sizewell C will occupy 32 hectares, not 7, but the point stands.

The peak output of Cleve Hill would be 350 MW; that’s more than nine times less than Sizewell C’s 3260 MW. Not only that, but UK government calculated the average capacity factor for solar in UK in 2018 was 10.8%; i.e. most of the time, the plant would deliver a tiny fraction of that headline 350 MW number.

There is a paradox here: a drive to renewables to save nature is itself putting pressure on nature. And with Greenpeace facing off against Friends of the Earth, it seems green NGOs don’t yet know how to resolve it.

With anti-nuclearism such a core part of green identity, environmental NGOs may never see the solution to the paradox lies with nuclear power. The general public, on the other hand, would probably quickly grasp that using 32 hectares of land for reliable nuclear power is better than 29800 hectares for intermittent solar power.

Since reading George Monbiot’s book Feral, I’ve been hooked on the idea of rewilding; giving land back to wildlife and restoring natural systems. Unlike George Monbiot, I see us achieving rewilding through science, technology and progress rather than through de-growth and “going back to the land”.

The energy density of nuclear fuels allow us to power advanced civilisation on a tiny footprint. Not only that, but plentiful clean electricity could unlock vertical farming and other land-saving (but energy-intensive) tech. Getting this message out is hard when the rise of TikTok and Instagram has made the 7-second memory of a goldfish seem like a high bar to aim for.

I put together the below infographic, which you can also download as a pdf here.

Get sharing, I guess?

Rewilding infographic

Written on May 31, 2020