More than 2,000 solar farms could be built by 2020 under a government plan to subsidise an eight-fold increase in solar power.
Many of the farms will be built on open countryside despite a pledge from ministers to focus on installing panels on factory rooftops, former industrial sites and abandoned airfields.
A “solar roadmap” published yesterday by the Department of Energy and Climate Change proposes to increase solar power over the next seven years from 2.4GW to 20GW, which would generate enough electricity to power six million homes.
While the roadmap calls on developers to show “greater sensitivity” to the impact on the landscape, the document makes clear that Britain must “grasp solar photo voltaic’s full potential” and take advantage of a halving in the cost of installing panels in the past three years.
Almost 300 solar farms have been built to date and more than 300 are scheduled to be built over the coming year, according to solar industry figures.
Several community protest groups have recently formed to try to block what many residents consider to be unsightly rows of panels covering entire fields. Even a relatively small solar farm generating 5 megawatts, enough for 1,500 homes, requires about 25 acres.
Hundreds of complaints have been submitted against a plan for a solar park the size of 85 football pitches on the Charborough estate in Dorset owned by Richard Drax, a Conservative MP.
Greg Barker, the Energy Minister, said he wanted to see 20GW of solar power installed by 2020 but only “if solar PV developers work closer with local communities”.
He said about 7GW of the 20GW could be solar farms but he would take action if necessary to prevent them being built on prime agricultural land or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Mr Barker said local communities “must be willing partners” for solar farms, but added “there is not an absolute veto”.
In July, the Government issued new planning guidance in an attempt to address concerns about solar farms.
This required planners to take greater account of their visual impact and “effects on cultural and heritage landscapes”.
Mr Barker said he would seek to tighten the rules further if solar farm developers focused too heavily on sites on open countryside.
However, he added: “That is not to say that there isn’t space for some solar on greenfield sites where it is appropriately screened on sub-prime agricultural property. But I do not want to see an inappropriate explosion of solar farms.”
Mr Barker said only one or two of the existing 300 solar farms were in the wrong place. He said: “The [solar industry] must not allow a few large-scale, inappropriately sited developments to ruin it for everyone. But I believe that by working with local communities and being sensitive to local concerns that solar energy has a strong future.”
Asked how many solar farms he would permit, he said: “We will see. I don’t have a number because it’s not a command and control system. But if we can only reach 20GW by a proliferation of solar farms we will not reach it.”
He wanted to see more solar arrays such as the one on the Bentley factory in Crewe, which produces up to 40 per cent of the energy the factory needs when the sun is shining.