Why supercharging solar in Britain isn’t at odds with safeguarding food security

The Labour Government has committed to trebling solar capacity by the end of this decade.

The next government, whatever form it takes, will be charged with taking the urgent steps necessary to tackle the most important issue of our time – combatting climate change and achieving net-zero. That matters not just for the future of our planet, but for the security of our country, too.

With the major parties having published their manifestos, it has been pleasing to see commitments being made towards achieving the Government’s target of reaching 70GW of solar capacity by 2035.

But if we are to have a hope of getting there, we need to lift our ambitions and get real about the importance of enabling our solar transition.

Beyond the urgent and unavoidable climate crisis, we need to be alive to the importance of ensuring the UK can support itself in times of challenge. The war in Ukraine exposed our dependence on foreign energy; at the same time, in a plentiful country, we need to ensure we can grow food to feed our population.

Fortunately, carefully thought through solar developments can help to achieve the triple policy objectives of achieving net-zero, establishing energy independence and sustaining the nation.

Some claim, however, that solar is somehow at odds with our ability to achieve the latter. It’s a simple but misinformed argument: as it stands, ground-mounted solar panels currently cover just 0.1% of all land in the UK. Even if the Government were to hit its target of a five-fold increase in solar power by 2035 (in itself a challenge), the University of Sheffield calculates that solar farms would take up 0.5 to 0.7% of UK land area. That’s in contrast to the 70% of the UK’s land that is classed as agricultural farmland.

Choosing wisely

But the solar industry knows it is important to use even that 0.1% of land carefully. Not all ‘agricultural’ land is capable of being farmed efficiently, but by carefully selecting the locations for solar developments, much of it can become economically productive once more. That’s why solar farms are designed to help regenerate previously unproductive agricultural land, allowing it to recover from decades of intensive farming.

Where agricultural land is more efficient, sensible solar developments can go hand-in-hand with its productive use, such as by enabling sheep grazing or smaller-scale crop growth. Take for example our project, Botley West Solar Farm. The project will produce a minimum 70% biodiversity net gain, protecting and restoring habitats and allowing sheep to roam.

The development will also enable the land to recover from farming, with landowners able to use the income to invest in more productive land-use practices that produce better yields and are more sustainable. That’s income from land that was otherwise financially unviable. Our plans have been drawn up in conjunction with the local farming community, and we are proud of the strength of that ongoing relationship.

More broadly, new investment in sensible solar schemes can help to deliver a much-needed investment boost to the UK. Botley West is a £1bn-plus scheme and will employ 2,500 contractors in its construction – and that’s before you get to the decades of tax receipts and cheaper electricity that will flow from it.

Much of this election has been framed around security, and we are pleased that solar is doing its bit to help achieve that. Hitting net-zero, establishing clean, green and domestic forms of electricity, and ensuring we can feed the nation are all vital components to our long-term independence. A solar supercharge is central to achieving each of these important policy goals.

Mark Owen-Lloyd is director at Photovolt Development Partners

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