As I write, South Derbyshire District Council is sitting in adjudication upon a proposal to build a 173-acre solar farm on agricultural land between the villages of Coton in the Elms and Lullington, South Derbyshire. Planning officers are recommending approval despite strong opposition from local residents, parish councils, the local county councillor and South Derbyshire MP Heather Wheeler. It seems that the environmental benefits are deemed just too great when compared to any of the supposed negative impacts. After all, this is a scheme that could be capable of powering 15,000 homes – provided the sun shines. Even on a cloudy day, however, we would still be talking about – just a minute whilst I work this out – very nearly 1,500 homes. Surely that must be well worth the industrialisation of a rural landscape, the removal of prime arable land from the farming industry, the traffic disturbance to locals and the fencing off of natural habitat to local deer, badgers, etc. Besides which, the feed-in tariffs awarded to the developer, Lullington Solar Park Limited, and the joy to be had by seeing the smiling landlord’s face must surely make it all worthwhile. Just don’t mention the birds.
Did someone just mention the birds? Yes, well I was hoping you wouldn’t bring that up. It’s all very well moaning on about the carnage inflicted by giant rotors that increasingly gate-keep the migration routes of our most treasured bird species (seagulls and whatever) but surely we can all agree that a solid, reflective platform the size of a 173-acre patio door, sprawled across South Derbyshire countryside, couldn’t possible pose a threat – can’t we? Well, we can’t if the statistics are anything to go by:
“In 2016, a first-of-its-kind study estimated that the hundreds of utility-scale solar farms around the US may kill nearly 140,000 birds annually.”
And unlike the raptor-munching windmills, these solar farms were quite egalitarian when it came to their lethality. Any bird that is too dumb to see the difference between sky and reflected sky has been fair game – that’s if you think that encouraging controlled flight into terrain is killing game fairly.
You’d think that societies established to study and protect our avian friends would look dimly upon such matters. And I’m sure they would if they were not funded by the same charitable foundations that are promoting the renewable energy bonanza. Take America’s National Audubon Society, for example. Between 2010 and 2013 they were to receive $11.2 million in backhanders from a group of 10 such foundations (these were identified in a report produced by the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works (EPW)). Audubon, in turn, contributed $100,000 towards the campaign to defeat Proposition 23, a proposition that had been aimed at curbing California’s legislated commitment to large-scale transition to bird-hostile renewables. Far from being a conservation society, Audubon, like so many others, is now just a sock puppet for a renewables industry pushing its idea of a green utopia. All of this may have something to do with why the following glowing endorsement for solar farms can be found on Audubon’s website:
“Solar energy is currently one of the fastest growing forms of energy. It’s economically competitive, and is flexible in the size and location of installations. It can power a single home or an entire neighborhood, and can be privately owned or service a whole community.”
It goes on to refer to the ‘deserved excitement about solar energy’ before striking one cautionary note, i.e. solar farms based upon ‘Concentrated Solar Power’ (CSP). In particular, there is CSP Tower Technology, which uses mirrors to concentrate solar rays onto a receiver to turn the solar energy into heat. The problem, however, with concentrating so much solar energy into one place is that birds are attracted to the light beam and the mirrors, and the intense heat zaps them. The result is so-called ‘streamers’, i.e. flaming carcasses, still flapping their wings as they plummet to the ground under Newton’s law of gravity. To its credit, even the National Audubon Society could see that projectile incineration has its PR downside, and so they deigned to withdraw their approval of this specific form of CSP.
All of the above has to be kept in context, of course; and when it comes to the Birdaggedon debate, there are three contexts in particular that always get a mention.
Firstly, the number of birds that come to grief due to the menace of renewables technology pales into insignificance when compared to the collective efforts of patio doors, domestic cats and car windshields (the activist’s Porsche Cayman 987 and Tesla milk float being equally culpable).
Secondly, there is always some wag who will bring up the study made by Dr Benjamin Sovacool of Sussex University, purporting that worldwide, fossil fuel power kills some 14.5 million birds annually. If this were true, this would make fossil fuel much the bigger of the bad wolves – if this were true.
One of these days I should make the effort to buy and read that study so that I can judge for myself. In the meantime, I am somewhat put off by Sovacool’s track record regarding the nuclear debate. As Ted Nordhaus has put it:
“But for decades, Sovacool and other prominent anti-nuclear academics have published a slew of dubious studies in peer-reviewed publications purporting to find that closing nuclear plants reduces emissions, that nuclear energy is fossil fuel intensive, uniquely dangerous, and inherently expensive, and that renewable energy alone can meet 100% of the world’s energy needs…In the end, everyone knows what Sovacool, Jacobson, and other anti-nuclear academics are up to. They are simply highly credentialed ideologues. It’s the bullshit that I worry more about, because, in its incoherence, overheated conspiracies, breezy utopias, and empty radicalism, it is far harder to interrogate”
I shouldn’t prejudge, but Sovacool sounds like the sort of guy who might as well remain behind his paywall as far as my limited Yorkshireman’s budget is concerned. And I suspect the reason why 14.5 million birds sounds to me like bullshit is probably because it is bullshit.
Finally, there’s the big one: global warming is destined to kill far more birds than renewables ever could. Well, when they say ‘destined’, I think they mean ‘conjectured’. Which raises the question as to how many dead birds in a mathematically modelled bush are equivalent to a dead one flying through the air in flames. I guess this is one for the availability heuristic to sort out and we will have to leave it at that.
Meanwhile, by my calculation, the Derbyshire District Council should be just about finished by now and will be making their press announcement shortly. I’m going to put my reputation on the line here and predict that this will be a victory for the NIMBY. But fear ye not. I’m quite sure the Government will be able to declare a state of emergency and drive roughshod over all democratic process. Yes, Coton in the Elms and Lullington, you shall get your solar farm after all.
The verdict is now in and, as I suspected, the plan has been rejected by the South Derbyshire District Council almost unanimously (just the one abstention). So what was it that tipped the balance in the end? Was it concern for the birds? Was it the eyesore resulting from the industrialization of the landscape? Did the council reject the idea that there was a climate crisis that could only be addressed by a mad dash for renewables? No, none of the above. In fact, the council had long since declared a climate emergency and so were well aware of the supposedly disastrous consequences of their decision.
No, the problem, in the end, came down to the fact that turning the fields into a solar farm would have resulted in the loss of valuable land used for growing potatoes to be turned into Walkers crisps. Crisis or not, a nation needs its crisps and the South Derbyshire District councillors were wise enough to recognize that imperative.
The irony, of course, is that our penchant for eating crisps would have to be one of the most damaging things that we do to the environment. Not only are there the millions of discarded packets that end up in landfill, there is also the fact that a 35g packet of crisps has a 75g carbon footprint. At least it did back in 2008 when Walkers, to their credit, signed up to the carbon labelling initiative. Since then, they have benefitted from an almost bottomless well of greenwashing PR as initiative after initiative has seen the carbon footprint drop consistently. Still, the best thing that Walkers could do to address the ‘problem’ is to tell us all to stop buying their product. But if the South Derbyshire District Council ruling is anything to go by, that advice is unlikely to be well received.