The Land and Environment Court in Växjö rendered a judgement earlier this week which is of fundamental interest for the possibilities to establish large-scale solar cell plants in Sweden. The company in question, which earlier has been stopped by the County Administrative Board, is now given the opportunity to establish the 232 hectare solar power plant they have planned for in the municipality of Helsingborg. The facility includes around 250 000 solar cell panels and is estimated to produce 175 GWh per year – a contribution of renewable energy equal to the yearly consumption of household electricity for over 8 500 households.
The interest in ground mounted solar cell plants has increased greatly over the last years in Sweden. However, the plans for large-scale establishments with extensive energy production run the risk of encountering obstacles when different interests shall be valued as large areas of land are being claimed. This conflict is particularly present in the south of Sweden where many areas are high class agricultural land of national interest.
The Environmental Code, chapter 3, section 4 states that usable agricultural land can be claimed for buildings or other establishments only if it is needed to meet a significant public interest that cannot be met in a satisfactory way from a public point of view through claiming another area. The legislative history gives that the regulation shall be applied to situations when agricultural land is permanently taken out of biological production. The County Administrative Board in Skåne considered due to this the 232 hectare solar power plant an inappropriate use of land and decided to prohibit the establishment – a decision that was later appealed by the company.
The company demanded that the court should annul the decision and argued that the planned establishment would not lead to agricultural land being permanently taken out of production. On the contrary the company referred to the possibilities of combining agriculture and solar energy production in the same place through different sorts of cultivation or grazing, which according to the company also gives positive effects for absorption of carbon dioxide and biodiversity. The company also stated that the facility is meant to be operated around 30 years because of the solar cell panels limited lifespan and that the land thereafter can be restored for conventional agricultural use. Due to this the establishment constitutes a temporary, rather than permanent, claim of the land in question. In addition it would mean a strong contribution of renewable energy, which both according to earlier court practice and the increasing need for electricity constitutes a significant public interest.
The court’s decision
The court starts off by stating that the establishment of a solar cell plant is not covered by the permit or report obligations in the Environmental Code. However, the operation may alter the natural environment and shall therefore be reported for consultation. The consultation process is however not a complete assessment of permissibility but shall refer only to harm to the natural environment. The decision from the County Administrative Board states that the measures taken by the company in protection of the natural environment are sufficient. Even though the term harm on the natural environment has been given a broad meaning in court practice questions regarding usage of agricultural land is outside the County Administrative Board’s scope of application and shall therefore not be considered in this case. The court states that there is no legal possibility for the County Administrative Board to prohibit the solar park within a procedure of consultation solely based on the loss of usable agricultural land and finds no other reasons to prohibit the establishment.
The judgement from the Land and Environment Court is another example of when solar cell parks are first stopped by the County Administrative Board and then allowed in a following judicial proceeding. For another example, please read one of our previously published articles here. This new recent case is of fundamental interest since it involves a very large area in a time where the need for renewable energy is perhaps more substantial than ever. It remains to be seen if the judgement is appealed and what the outcome of a proceeding in the highest court would be. Lindahl’s energy and environment groups pay close attention to the development.