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Merton College withdraws from local solar panel initiative

Merton College has withdrawn from a possible land use collaboration with Botley West Solar Farm, forfeiting the potential of generating 840 megawatts of clean energy. Merton College’s Hall Farm site in Begbroke, the site of the potential collaboration, entailed only 5% of the total project land area, and the College’s withdrawal will not jeopardise the viability of the scheme. 

The development plan, supervised by German firm Photovolt Development Partners, is to cover around 3500 acres of land, of which 2500 acres will be used for panels and infrastructure. Classed as a Nationally Significant Project due to its sheer scale, Botley West Solar Farm will be almost ten times larger than the next biggest British solar project, Shotwick Park, which produces just under 70,000-megawatt hours of renewable energy every year. 

The decision aligns with the goals of the ‘Stop Botley West Campaign’, which has led efforts coordinating action against the Botley West Solar Farm’s project, objecting to it on environmental, moral and political grounds. The Campaign says the energy project is detrimental to the protection of biodiversity: digging would destroy rare ancient water meadows, and the piles on which the solar panels are mounted would “represent real threats to biodiversity and birdlife.”

The Oxford community has similarly voiced complaints against the Botley West Solar Farm project. The panels require the land from 2-3% of Oxford’s green belt, and would involve around 50% of Oxfordshire’s total land area. Some objections stem from fear of the project’s negative effect on arable agricultural farming. Others believe the panels will cause visual pollution and diminish Oxford’s natural beauty. 

Residents of Witney and West Oxfordshire have created a petition urging parliamentary repeal of the project. They have also requested reform of the National Planning Policy Framework in order to clarify guidance on the appropriate location, scale and design of proposed solar farms.

The Botley West Farm project website states the project’s ambition and that it is realistic to both “add to Oxfordshire’s biodiversity” and “generate enough low-cost clean and renewable electricity to power approximately 330,000 homes.”  

Though Merton has pulled out of the project, the College said they continue to align themselves with long-term sustainable objectives. In an official statement on its website, Merton said they plan to continue “planting extensive wildflower meadows” in partnership with the Thames Valley Wildflower Meadow Restoration Project and supporting “soil renewal” schemes. 

The College has also committed to improving the energy efficiency of its buildings. Newly implemented sustainable changes include the fitting of the T.S. Eliot Lecture Theatre with adiabatic heating and cooling systems and the replacement of gas hobs in the college kitchens with electric induction hobs. They also plan to install Megaflo systems, highly efficient unvented water cylinders which increase hot water storage and form part of a central heating system. 

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