Solar power ban on England’s farms could see farmers missing out on £1bn benefit, analysis reveals
Almost 80% of farms in England do not have solar panels installed but, if they did, they could reap significant financial benefits by avoiding high gas prices and generating additional revenue streams, a new analysis has concluded.
Published today by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), the analysis reveals that 78% of farms in England have no renewable energy generation installed onsite. The most common form of onsite generation for English farmers is solar.
It concludes that, if all farms which could install solar did so, they could reap some £1.1bn of financial benefits within a two-year period from 2023. The benefits would primarily arise from reduced energy bills, through the avoidance of expensive gas and gas-fired electricity, and through the ability for farmers to sell energy back to the grid, providing an additional revenue stream.
The ECIU is emphasising that these savings would almost cover the extra that farmers are having to pay for fertilisers. Fertiliser prices have skyrocketed this year because Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted global supply chains; pre-war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for more than 40% of the global ammonia supply.
With these findings in mind, the ECIU is urging the UK Government to stop considering a ban on solar development on large swathes of agricultural land. It was reported in early October that the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) is looking to extend its ban on solar for high-grade farmland to land categorised as 3b, or “sub-grade”. Land within this category accounts for the majority of the planned pipeline for ground-mounted solar on farms. The ban already applies to grade 1, 2 and 3a land.
The reports came from Liz Truss’s Government when Ranil Jaywarenda was heading up Defra. Proposals were then not published to the agreed timelines amid Truss’s resignation. However, Truss’s successor, Rishi Sunak, also spoke out against solar development during his leadership campaign. The Guardian reported this month that Sunak’s pick for Defra, Therese Coffey, is set to push ahead with the proposals.
Coffey stated in Parliament on Thursday 17 November: “It’s really important we make the best use of our land to have that food security … It’s also really important when considering land use to consider the best place to put renewable energy, which by and large most people would agree, let’s use our best agricultural land for farming and make use of brownfield sites for a lot of these energy projects, too.”
The ECIU is imploring Coffey and other Defra workers to look at the facts and figures about the relationship between solar and food security – and the opinions of Conservative voters, farmers and landowners.
Solar panels currently cover around 0.08% of total land across the UK, or 0.1% of UK farmland, only half the size of the Isle of Wight, according to Solar Energy UK. More significant threats to food security include changing weather patterns, soil degradation, supply chain shocks with fertiliser and bioenergy crops. Bioenergy crops covered 2.1% of the UK’s total arable area in 2020, up from 1.6% in 2019, by Defra’s own figures.
Polling conducted on the ECIU’s behalf, of 103 MPs, found that just 19% of Conservative MPs believe their constituents would support a solar farm. In reality, 80% of UK adults would support a local solar project, according to a separate poll of 1,896 members of the general public. Another large-scale survey of members of the general public, with 2,000 respondents, revealed that 60% would rate their local MP less highly if they campaigned against the development of a local solar farm.
Commenting on the ECIU analysis, Keighley and Ilkley’s Conservative MP Robbie Moore said: “As gas prices rocket some farmers’ energy bills have gone through the roof. Having come from a farming background, I know how much of a challenge unexpected extra costs can be. One of the best solutions is to have more renewables on farms. As long as care is taken to avoid land that’s needed to produce food they can help cut bills, bring in extra income, and achieve net-zero.”
Naked Energy’s chief executive and co-founder Christophe Williams said: “The UK must pull out all the stops and take every opportunity to invest in the nation’s renewable infrastructure. From our farmlands to our cities, we have so much untapped potential – and the need for the UK to be self-sufficient in its energy generation has never been more critical.
“Solar installations on less productive farmland is only the tip of our potential to gain energy security. Another seriously overlooked opportunity is the vast amount of roof space in our cities that can be used to deploy solar heat and power assets.”
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