The current surfeit of solar farms requiring landscape work will not last, but landscaping of solar farms could still provide a stable source of income in the long term for those firms that can ride the ups and downs of the industry.
The Government announced in July last year that it would be ending subsidies for solar farms, unleashing a rush in planning applications from developers keen to get projects approved before crucial deadlines.
As a result, huge numbers of solar farms are being pushed through before the financial year ends on 31 March. Analysis of data from Horticulture Week's Landscape Project Leads service (see p52 for latest leads) shows dozens of solar farms in the pipeline will require landscape work as a condition of planning approval.
LDA Design director of sustainability and climate change Robert Shaw said: "There are a huge number of farms being built between now and the end of the financial year. Typically they go hell for leather to get it all connected to the grid and generating income, then they look at landscaping. So for the landscape industry you've got a good 12 months of work on a huge number of projects that are being connected."
But Shaw said the spike in work is only temporary. Around the end of 2016 the glut of solar farm building work from legacy projects will fall away, followed by a hiatus while the industry learns to work without subsidies.
Moving into 2017, work could drop off for between one and three years, though in Shaw's view the industry "is not going away". He added: "We've always underestimated the ability of the industry to respond. For example, in 2011 (when subsidies for solar panels were slashed) we thought that was it for many years, but 10 months later it cranked up again."
He expects the industry to mature, with fewer big farms but a steady number of small farms coming on stream. November's Paris climate agreement, which commits countries to cutting their carbon emissions, is also a promising sign that renewables are a good long-term investment.
Meanwhile, LDA is working with its solar clients to help them move toward business models that are not reliant on subsidies. Solar generation is getting cheaper and battery technology, which can store solar energy and release it when prices are favourable, is rapidly improving, making it more economically viable to open up new sites in previously inhospitable or lower-light areas.
While Shaw predicts that the industry will pick up, he said as a landscaper he would be "nervous" about banking everything on solar, adding: "The downward pressure on costs is phenomenal. There are very few contractors generally making very much money, and I have been hearing anecdotally of things done at cost. It probably is a long-term industry - but whether or not it's lucrative is a different story."
Leads - HW service identifies landscape work for solar farms
East Yorkshire £32m solar farm to be created by Big60Million. Wild flower meadows and 275 trees to be planted to allay residents' concerns.
East Dorset £5m solar farm by Orta Wedge Solar. Needs hedge and tree planting to screen from residents' views as well as SuDS measures.
Antrim, Northern Ireland £7m solar farm for Lightsource SPV 68 requires seeding of wild flower meadows and grassland as well as boundary hedge and tree planting.
Case study - Solar facility at Vine Farm in South Cambridgeshire
When rural communities oppose solar farms, landscaping is almost always part of the mitigation process. At its simplest that can just mean gapping up hedges and putting in place a management plan. But it can also mean a strong landscape scheme such as the 100ha Vine Farm in Wendy, South Cambridgeshire.
The community was strongly opposed to the scheme, which at the time of its consent in October 2014 was one of the country’s largest greenfield solar farms with a peak capacity of 50MW. LDA Design helped the developers through the appeals process to get the farm approved by creating an ecologically friendly nature park. Extensive planting, wild flower meadows and reptile habitat creation were all included, said LDA director of sustainability and climate change Robert Shaw.
"It can be very interesting landscaping these developments. You can almost always create some quite interesting habitat, especially ecologically. Solar farms are naturally a bit more diverse in terms of not being chemical-heavy or intensively farmed."