An application to install 30,000 solar panels at a farm in Eashing was recently rejected and while individual proposals are often contentious, the issue of renewable energy sources remains a hot topic for debate.
The Conservative government announced this week that coal power stations would close by 2015 and the gas resources, to which it is likely to now turn, are finite and come at an environmental cost. Nuclear energy is at the very least politically problematic and the dream of energy from nuclear fusion has not yet come to fruition.
So to what extent can renewable energy provide a solution?
The government is considering reducing subsidies for solar energy, while many environmentalists argue that it is the only option.
Surrey is home to experts and campaigners of every stripe and we asked five of them for their point of view.
We don’t propose here to present a solution, or even a debate, but only to show some of the issues at stake.
Jamie McAllister, development director at Dunsfold Park
The solar farm operator
“Solar power is a fantastic source of renewable energy. Sunlight is free, not owned by anyone and will not run out for millions of years.
“As the largest business site in Waverley, it makes sense for us to harness that energy and, in September 2011, Dunsfold Park became the first business park in Surrey to be powered principally by ‘green energy’.
“We installed 8,500 ground level solar panels in a discreet, south facing location on the aerodrome – perfectly orientated to make the most of the natural light.
“The solar panels make it possible for the electricity generated during working hours to be used by the businesses at Dunsfold Park and at weekends and times of high supply, for the excess energy to be fed back into the National Grid.
“The capacity of the system is two megawatts – sufficient energy to supply approximately 670 households.
“In our case it supplies power to 100 tenants based on the aerodrome.
“Every unit of solar energy offsets the need to pay for fossil fuels from places like Russia or Qatar, and helps tackle climate change.
“It is also very cost effective; we can produce energy more cheaply than the National Grid and this helps make Dunsfold Park a great location for businesses to base themselves.
“The solar farm at Dunsfold Park makes efficient use of land that was not otherwise productive and perfectly complements our sustainable ambitions, which also include plans for an anaerobic digestion plant.
Andy Smith, Surrey branch director, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).
The countryside protection campaigner
“While supporting the principle of renewable energy, CPRE Surrey opposes any inappropriate development in the countryside and this includes intrusive energy-related developments such as solar farms and wind farms in sensitive landscapes, especially in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and areas of great landscape value (AGLVs).
“In our view, it would be highly unlikely that any proposal for a solar farm or wind farm in Surrey would provide tangible environmental or economic benefits and certainly not enough to justify or outweigh the harm that would be done to the landscape and visual amenity by such a development.
“It is vitally important to preserve views to and from the AONB and AGLV and other precious countryside.
“We opposed the recent application for a solar farm in Shackleford and were pleased that this application was rejected.
“Unfortunately, there is a lack of clarity from the government on this. The current approach to planning renewable energy can be confusing for local communities, conservationists and developers alike.
“What is needed is better planning policy and a clear direction from the government that schemes for renewable energy should be located on appropriate sites and not permitted to scar beautiful rural landscapes.
“We cannot allow such schemes, however well-intentioned, to blight our precious Surrey countryside and villages.”
Mark Lebus is CEO of LC Energy Ltd, a provider of sustainable energy from biomass, based in Shere.
The energy from biomass provider
Founded in 2007 LC Energy has grown to become one of the UK’s leading providers of wood fuels and systems with clients across all sectors ranging from Heathrow Airport, Center Parcs and the NHS to Guildford Borough Council, Birtley House Care Home and Surrey Sports Park.
“There has been a huge push towards the use of renewable energy over the past decade for three important reasons – controlling costs, ensuring security of supply and protecting our environment.
“Across the South East, there is a high dependency on heating oil which has recognisable cost unpredictability.
“Given that Surrey is the most wooded county in England, we have created local timber to local heat supply chains for long term security and consistent pricing.
“The added benefit is that it is bringing woodlands back into management which improves biodiversity and better tree growth.
“Wood fuel heating has matured significantly across Europe over the past 50 years, which means the technology and expertise already exists.
“Systems installed in the UK are very sophisticated and highly efficient with automatic fuel feed technology and remote monitoring.
“Although the cost of wood fuel installations is normally greater than the cost for oil or gas systems, the good news is that the government launched the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) a few years ago, which ensures a short payback on the capital investment and continues for 20 years in total.”
Matthew Leach, professor of energy and environmental systems, the Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey.
“We owe our lifestyles and very existence to the sun, as the original source of almost all of our energy from the fossil fuels – it grew the plants that fossilised into coal, oil and gas – to most of the renewables – it drives the winds and waves, grows new bioenergy crops, and directly powers solar energy technologies such as panels producing hot water or electricity.
“Just solar energy technologies alone could provide up to 20 times more energy each year than total global energy use. So the resource is almost limitless for what is the ultimate clean energy option.
“We just need the technical, economic and social ingenuity to bring these technologies into the mass market.
“Thanks largely to government ‘feed-in-tariff’ incentives, in the UK the cost of a solar PV roof has halved in the last five years, as ‘learning by doing’ helps manufacturers and installers cut costs.
“We now have more than a million homes with a solar PV roof. In the UK, without the government incentives, solar PV remains more expensive than buying electricity from the grid, but that gap has been closing fast.
“Once costs equalise, government can withdraw as the market does its thing, bringing mass-uptake on the road to a low carbon future.
“Sadly, it seems this plan is at risk in the UK. The incentive is likely to be slashed, as government has used up the allocated funds.
“Hopefully clear heads will prevail, as it is hard to imagine a brighter future than one that is solar powered.”
Spencer Crocker from Transition Cobham.
The environmental campaigner
“Transition Cobham is a strong supporter of renewable energy generation in creating more resilient communities.
“Generating electricity and heating water, from the sun’s rays or from the wind, can shield communities from the availability and cost of fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources.
“They can also contribute to the local economy through manufacturing, consultants, retailers and installers operating in the area.
“Demand for oil, gas and electricity commonly takes the following forms: lighting, heating, cooking, cooling and transportation.
“Once these demands have been reduced through energy efficiency and conservation methods, the next step is to generate the remaining energy demand, locally.
“Photovoltaic panels and solar thermal panels are established technologies that are improving in their efficiency to generate electricity and heat water respectively.
“These technologies need investment and this could be done through homeowners and companies installing them on the roofs of their houses and businesses.
“Unfortunately, the solar industry is at risk with current plans to cut the subsidies it receives before it is fully established and has transitioned to a subsidy-free status.
“If you believe in the benefits of solar, then now is the time to invest in solar or contact your local MP to ask them to support the solar industry.
“If you are interested in investing in the local economy and the future, please get in contact with us, as we are investigating the possibility of setting up an energy co-operative to create renewable energy projects in and around Cobham.”