Solar farms: How are rural communities being impacted in an ambition for a greener Wales?

  • Watch the report by ITV Wales Rural Affairs Correspondent Hannah Thomas

Last February I visited the tiny hamlet of Cwrt-y-Cadno in Carmarthenshire - the small community fighting to 'save' the valley from big companies buying up farmland to plant trees, and offset their carbon emissions.

Indeed it was a story I covered extensively last year for ITV Cymru Wales. As climate change awareness heightened, and the need to make Wales carbon net zero increased, some people felt that parts of rural Wales were being sacrificed for climate change targets.

They believed that productive farmland, used to produce local and sustainable Welsh food, was at risk of being covered by non-native woodland. It was the subject of many a heated debate.

There is an ever-growing demand for cleaner greener energy in Wales Credit: PA

But now there is a new twist to this story. As the war in Ukraine - which also began last February - rages on, there is an ever growing demand for clean; green and renewable energy to be produced here in Wales.

The Welsh Government's own target is for all electricity in Wales to come from renewable energy sources by 2035. Last month Climate Change Minister Julie James said generation of cleaner energy needs to be "ramped up".

She said, "The evidence is clear that towards the end of this decade, we will need to rapidly ramp up our generation of electricity to meet our energy needs. Our renewable energy proposals are ambitious, but credible."

The generation of that electricity includes that coming from solar panels. On cloudier days, according to the British Electricity Tracker, none of the UK's energy is generated by solar power.

But on sunnier days, between three and four percent of the electricity used in the UK comes from solar

Despite those percentages, campaigners say there is a new and pressing issue developing in the Welsh countryside.

They claim that productive farmland is being bought up by big companies to install rows of solar panels.

In parts of Wales, more than a thousand acres of farmland has already been earmarked for solar panel development. And in the Vale of Glamorgan, they are trying to stop any more. A protest group has started who argue they aren't "opposed" to solar panels but want them in the "right place". 

Campaigners say they are not opposed to solar panels, but they should be placed in more suitable locations

"We aren't opposed to solar panels per se," one demonstrator tells me.

"But fundamentally, if we don't protect areas of special scientific and historic interest for future generations, we are going to have a real problem. There'll be nothing left here. It'll just be a Vale full of glass panels."

The group are supported in their quest to halt solar farms by the Farmers' Union of Wales. Vice Chair of Glamorgan, Charlotte Llewellyn, has done some work researching the scale of solar farm applications so far.

She says, "Farmers aren't against solar panels, but we really want to get them in the right place. The technology is there to put them on barn roofs, shed roofs and south facing walls. We just need the infrastructure in place to be able to carry that out."

The developers behind these solar farms they are against - and there are many - would argue that their aim is to create clean; green and renewable energy which we need more of in Wales. Others argue that offshore wind or tidal energy is a more suitable way to reach our goals on renewables.

There are those though, who adopt a more middling approach to solar.

Farmer David Phillips, from Michaelston-y-Fedw near Newport, can trace his family's connection with the farm back 111 years.

David has solar panels on 5% of his farm

Previous generations have been vegetable growers and livestock producers.

But David now focuses on arable farming - growing wheat and oats - and the generation of local energy.

He has solar panels on 5% of his farm - roughly 10 acres - and a wind turbine in the gustiest part. He thinks this mix of food production and energy production is the way forward.

"We've invested in the wind and solar industry ourselves over the past ten or fifteen years. I really feel like a lot of this can stay in Wales. Welsh farmers can do it themselves. It can be all home grown, with the profits staying in Wales."

Of course all of these solar farm applications have to go through planning systems across the country. Some planning decisions rest with local authorities, others with national park authorities and so on.

Therefore, the Welsh Government says:

"It is the role of the planning system to balance the requirement for new renewable energy generating facilities, against the impacts they would have on the environment. We are clear that we do not want inappropriate development which would have a clearly adverse impact on our environment. We have a planning system in Wales which is capable of considering all competing issues.”

Where the row centred around the "over-development" of solar farms goes next, nobody can say. But with climate change set to deepen, and a Welsh Government aim to see Wales fossil fuel-free in twelve years, the battle between producing food to 'eat' and energy to 'heat' is likely to intensify.