DEBATE: Should we use agricultural land to build solar farms?

Megan Batchelor and Penny Mills

June 24, 2022

Megan Batchelor, Climate Programme Intern at the Conservative Environment Network, argues YES

With energy and food prices spiralling in part due to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, resource security has rocketed to the top of the national agenda. Solar power, one of the cheapest energy sources available to us, can lower people’s bills and strengthen our energy security. But building this cheap, clean power source needn’t risk our food security.

As a rule, only low-grade, unproductive land should be considered for solar farms. There is already a strong presumption against permitting solar farms on our best and most versatile land in planning guidance. The government is looking at whether to strengthen this further to prevent inappropriate planning approvals. This will protect our food security. Proper consultation between developers and local communities should also be mandatory: persuasion, not imposition.

Our pressing need for cheap, clean, home-grown renewables needn’t conflict with our equally pressing need for home-grown food. We’d require less space than what is already used up by golf courses to build 70-90 gigawatts of solar power capacity – just 0.4 per cent – 0.6 per cent of land. Agrivoltaic technology even allows animal grazing alongside energy production – a productivity double whammy for livestock farmers.

There are persuasive arguments for a ‘rooftop first’ approach to solar panels. This would certainly reduce the conflict between energy and agriculture while providing households, businesses, and the public sector direct access to cheap power. However, there is an undeniable tradeoff given utility  – scale solar is cheaper to install due to economies of scale, meaning cheaper power for everyone. Solar farms can also help farmers diversify their income.

There’s a balance to be struck between our energy needs, food security, but also fairness and the beauty of our countryside. Communities, local government, and developers must work together to find the right solution. But to reject solar farms wholesale would be economically and environmentally foolhardy, amounting to nothing less than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Penny Mills, Director at CPRE Devon, argues NO

Devon CPRE, a branch of the countryside charity CPRE, is fighting solar farm proposals that threaten to swallow up thousands of acres of productive farmland in Devon. At a time of rising energy bills, why does our environmental pressure group oppose such developments? 

First and foremost because the best use of farmland is to produce food. Solar panels are a highly inefficient way to convert sunlight to useful energy. By contrast, plants do it extremely well – and naturally.  

Food security is an issue of national importance; by covering our fields in glass and metal, we reduce our ability to produce home-grown food and will become increasingly reliant on imports from halfway across the planet. Nothing low carbon about that! With war raging on European soil, supplies of major commodities can’t be guaranteed and reduced availability inevitably pushes up prices.  

Solar companies like building on farmland because it’s cheap, easy and lucrative. They tell us that the energy they produce is also cheap. It’s not. Solar power will NEVER be a constant, reliable, stand-alone form of electricity generation in this country – the same goes for wind – because they rely on the unpredictable British weather.  

The more consumers rely on renewables, the more they will pay for electricity. This is because controllable gas-fired power stations are needed to balance the grid 24/7 to keep supply matching demand.  Nuclear and gas-fired power stations are also needed on cold, dark and still winter days when renewables produce negligible amounts of electricity. 

Finally, what about the ethical considerations of allowing more solar farms? The uncomfortable truth is that solar panels contain all manner of toxic substances that can degrade the soil, they can’t be recycled and they are often produced using forced labour in China.  

Developers are interested in profit – don’t take their claims about solar at face value. 


Written by Megan Batchelor and Penny Mills

Megan Batchelor is a Climate Programme Intern at the Conservative Environment Network and Penny Mills is Director of CPRE Devon, the countryside charity.


  1. An emphatic NO from me.
    With food supplies from the breadbasket of Europe, Ukraine, blocked by the Russian invasion, it’s even more important that we use all the farmland available to us for food production.
    These solar farms take land away from mixed farming and only allow limited grazing, if any, once solar panels are installed.
    It has to be remembered that solar farms, like wind, are intermittent and dependent on the time of day, season and the unpredictable weather we experience. (How we are able to predict how the climate will change future years when tomorrow’s weather forecast is little more than a guesstimate beats me – but I digress.)
    So, for every MW of solar capacity installed we need an equal amount of capacity from reliable sources to keep the lights on after sunset, on overcast days and, especially, in winter. Why spend the capital twice when once will do?
    We are fortunate in this country being an island on the continental shelf to have our own enormous resources of gas and oil. It’s all around us under the sea and, literally, under our feet. We should be taking advantage of this so we are more self reliant in energy supply.
    We should also be planning forward to expand nuclear powered electricity generation, including small modular reactors, which should keep those who are in fear of a trace gas, carbon dioxide, happy.

  2. We need good quality food, which Devon can provide in terms of meat and dairy products. Solar energy is neither clean nor cheap and it is a complete waste of money and farmland. Solar panel manufacture involves the use of slave labour in China. Solar is a very inefficient means of generating electricity. It doesn’t provide any electricity when we most need it – in winter when it is cold and dark.

  3. In my view there should be a presumption against using agricultural land for PV development but each case should be assessed on merit.
    The loss of our “Best & Most Versatile” farmland to PV development should be resisted at all costs.
    There are areas of “agricultural land” within the UK that might be suitable for large/field scale PV developments such as where the quality of the land is poor and the site is located in an area that can be proven to not be adversely affected by the change from rural to quasi industrial (as an example here I am thinking of tracts of land adjacent to railways/major road networks located away from villages and populated areas).
    However the fundamental point is that our countryside and rural character should never be threatened by inappropriate development in whatever form. That is the fundamental role, or should be, of our Town & Country planning system.
    It is not right to play the “climate change” card in order to try to justify inappropriate development and in the words of Eric Pickles MP and at the time Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government “do not let protecting the global environment be an excuse to trash the local environment”
    There are obviously pressures on all of us to embrace the need to reduce our carbon footprint and inevitably that will involve investing in and moving towards methods of “clean energy” production but it is vital that the long term benefits of protecting our countryside and agricultural land are not sacrificed in the rush to do so.
    Regrettably the incumbent UK Government clearly have no thought out plan as to exactly how their declared climate change objectives can be met and instead they appear to have “passed the buck” to local planning authorities and at the same time offered incentives and subsidies to so called “renewable energy development companies”.
    What is not widely understood is the fact that most of these “renewable energy development companies” are actually “energy trading companies” and that the greatest part of their vast profits are derived not from clean energy production but from straightforward buying and selling of our own electricity supply.
    There are far more appropriate ways of creating solar power than field scale development of our existing agricultural land and that obviously is by utilising “Brownfield “ sites and encouraging small scale solar generation such as on existing industrial/commercial buildings and all new build houses.

  4. A definite ‘no’ from me too. Solar for rooftops, fields for food (as well as wildlife and wellbeing). There are over 250,000 hectares of unused south facing commercial rooftops in the UK, some of which could be used for solar parks. Not to mention millions of domestic rooftops and newbuilds that should have these installed at the outset. There is a way to avoid land use conflicts and ensure our energy and food security – it just needs a sensible strategy and an effective monitoring programme. In Germany, well over 30 GW of annual solar energy comes from rooftop solar. That’s more than double the UK’s entire output from rooftops and ground mounted solar together. It can be done. And it’s completely untrue to suggest that the current planning system protects BMV land. Of the 20+ solar farms in my local area, all except for one are proposed on BMV land! The planning policies are not robust enough to protect our vital national resource – our soil and countryside. This has to change quickly – and especially in light of the current food crisis.

  5. Megan’s arguments seem based on “cheapness” of solar energy, the lack of merit of proposals on Best and Most Versatile agricultural land, the advisability of consultation between developer and communities, the availability of spare land and the “need” for farmers to diversify their income.


    Solar is cheap because of Uyghur slave labour in production of panels and because of huge government subsidies to meet “Net Zero” that allow developers and landowners to make huge profits.
    BMV land is not currently protected as local planning authorities feel pressure centrally to hit “green” targets – and are attracted to the business rates received from the developers as a result of the change of use of the land. Another cost to the taxpayer.
    Consultation and benefit to local communities is virtually non-existent as developers take the easiest option and realise that planning authorities put little, if any, weight to the concerted opinions of local communities about the economic and social benefit of industrial solar installations with security fencing, lights and cameras where once there were green fields and food producing animals.
    The comparison to golf courses is spurious. Golf courses take up more space than housing in the UK – but are valued as important contributors to our green spaces and our recreation as well as sequestering carbon in large amounts. BMV land is for food production and the idea that grass can grow well in the shade below panels sufficient to support any significant food production is also anathema.
    Finally, the idea that farmers should “diversify” at the cost of producing food is clearly insane. Certainly diversify into farm cottages in old redundant buildings if you would like. But “stick to the knitting” and be proud of your place in society in producing food for us all. Covering your food producing land with solar panels is hugely inefficient, irregular and intermittent energy production, adds to the scarcity of food and cost of living crisis, adds to the climate crisis by reducing the sequestration of carbon in grass and by adding food miles via replacement food sources and does nothing for the local community economy or well-being.

    NO – put them on brown field sites, homes and factory buildings. Make them compulsory on all new-builds, and we can then intelligently balance the food security issue with the climate issue.

    Greenwashing carried out by those with huge sums of money to win or lose should not persuade those in power to crucify any individual community or impact our national food security.

  6. The replies from Kit, Adrian and Catherine are full of common sense and relevant comments, and I thoroughly endorse them – they should have attended the Langford enquiry! One comment that crops up regularly is the siting of panels on rooftops. We have a new town of 2-3000 houses at Cranbrook (East Devon), but I have seen not one rooftop panel. New barns and industrial estates are going up everywhere, but how many incorporate panels? OK it might cost more due to economies of scale, but so what? Finally I’m not thrilled with the thought of eating only lamb for the rest of my life; I like beef and pork too!

  7. The replies from Kit, Adrian and Catherine are full of common sense and relevant comments, and I thoroughly endorse them – they should have attended the Langford enquiry! One comment that crops up regularly is the siting of panels on rooftops. We have a new town of 2-3000 houses at Cranbrook (East Devon), but I have seen not one roof panel. New barns and industrial estates are going up everywhere, but how many incorporate panels? OK it might cost more due to economies of scale, but so what? Finally I’m not thrilled with the thought of eating only lamb for the rest of my life; I like beef and pork too!

  8. A big ‘NO’ for solar farms from me! Attempting to generate electricity from solar panels in the UK at around 50N seems to me like the classic example of generating asynchronous power. In the UK, solar panels are at their best during the day in summer when demand for electricity tends to be at its lowest. Whereas in winter when the demand is high, solar panels produce little or nothing. Storing electricity is difficult and inefficient which is why the National Grid was designed around the concept of synchronous power – only generate electricity when it is needed!

    Furthermore, we need to take account of the interaction between the asynchronous renewable energy production and that produced synchronously from conventional power stations. If the grid is flooded with solar electricity during the day in summer, how does that affect the operation of nuclear power stations? Would they be switched on and off? Sounds either very inefficient or totally impossible! And during winter anticyclonic weather sometimes the renewables only provide 3% of the grid requirement meaning we will need a full network of gas and nuclear power stations to back up the renewables. Having a grid with embedded renewables simply adds to the cost and carbon footprint of the electricity supply infrastructure.

    Nor I am a fan of solar panels on buildings in the UK, as most buildings in this country do not have a high demand for electricity during the day in summer (we don’t usually have air conditioning). Perhaps a notable exception would be the panels on the roof of the swimming pool at the Ladram Bay Holiday Park, East Devon, where use is high in the holiday season but most buildings do not have this sort of requirement.

    Whether we like it or not, we have to go on generating electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear as efficiently as possible and to use it as sparingly as possible. Carbon offset measures will be needed to combat climate change. Let’s leave farmland for food production, not generating electricity!

    1. Mike Godfrey Chartered Electrical Power Engineer

      Do I think that solar energy is good – YES when the panels are roof mounted on barns, houses, office blocks and other industrial units, providing electrical energy at the point of use and avoiding very costly upgrades to the Grid System and DEFINATELY NO when developed as large scale industrial sites, creating major impact to the local environment, swallowing up valuable food producing farmland and requiring large scale and very costly upgrades to the Grid System. Re-adopting the original successful scheme, launched by the Government about 12 years ago, would achieve the same end result but without the major disruptions to local communities and loss of valuable food producing farmland, which we will need all too soon.

      If we encourage individuals to again install Solar Panels on their roofs, this provide about 4000kWh+ a year, which they won’t have to buy off the Grid at what seems to be ever increasing prices, if we continue with this dead end policy of large scale solar, which only benefits the developer and doesn’t seem to have any real benefit for the end user.

      I am a member of the Pyworthy Environmental Group (PEG) and also a Charter Electrical Engineer with over 50 years experience in the Electrical Power Industry in electrical power generation and transmission, and in the last 15 years involved in the installation and maintenance of Solar PV sites. I am concerned by the glowing “green” statements made by the Developers of these huge proposed industrial solar sites. The claims made by these Companies on performance and the benefits to the environment are quite different from the reality and from my personal experience and observations. When I started on this type of work, with solar panels being roof mounted, I felt that they were a good source of renewable energy, particularly as they delivered their output energy close to the point of use and by design only affected the site supply voltage by a few volts. Over the last 10 years or so I have come to realise that as large scale solar industrial sites have become fashionable and very profitable for the Developers, that they are not so “green”, taking up thousands of acres of prime food producing farm land, to produce electricity in the middle of the day when it isn’t really required nationally, producing very little during the morning and evening peaks, when the System and Country really needs it and of course nothing during the hours of darkness. During the peak requirements for electricity throughout the winter months these solar industrial sites produce around 1-5% of their rated output for the most part on many days.

      In contrast other forms of renewable energy such as wind, geothermal, biomass, tidal and hydro, which can produce far more reliable electricity 24/7 at the same level whether it be summer or indeed winter. All these forms of renewable energy can use much smaller land areas and proportionately produce a great deal more energy. For instance a 5MW wind turbine, occupying about ¼ acre, can produce up to 4 times more energy than that from the equivalent 5MW solar site occupying 25 acres. Solar panels are only about 20% efficient, just about everything else is far more efficient.

      In particular, Developers claim that a 40 – 50 MW site can supply 12,000+ homes, which is about 3.5kw per house. However, this output is only attained for less than half the year, during the summer months on sunny days, and then only for the core day hours. These sites produce very little when the Countries high demands occur at the morning and evening peaks. Of course they produce absolutely nothing during the hours of darkness. During the winter months, when demand for electricity is at its highest, on many days producing less than 5% of their rated output. Frequently, this winter they were turning out around 1%, that’s around 120 homes, far removed from the Developers claims. In short they produce electricity when it isn’t really needed and do not produce the power when it is really needed.

      Developers of these sites also claim that they occupy just a few percent of the land area, where the steel piles penetrate the ground. The reality is that the panels shade the majority of the site, preventing the normal Carbon absorption that grass would be doing naturally, resulting in rushes and nettles growing in place of grass.

      Solar generated electricity is connected to the Grid system via Inverters, which converts the DC generated by the solar panels to AC required by the Grid. This form of connection to the Grid fails to provide the mass inertia that conventional rotating generators have inbuilt by design and which is so necessary to maintain the very important grid voltage and frequency stability. However, as more and more inverter generation is connected, we risk grid instability and serious large scale blackouts.

      Most of these developers will claim a battery installation associated with the solar site will enable the site to deliver electricity when needed after dark and at the morning and evening peaks but the size of the battery capacity will only account for a fraction of its output. It is more likely that the batteries will be used to be charged from cheap overnight electricity and sold off each day at the morning peak and then recharged again from solar, if available, for the evening peak where electricity prices are highest. Hence, affectively trading in electricity at a large profit. Fire risk is also of great concern with these Li-Ion batteries, where hot spots within the batteries construction can develop into serious very toxic chemical fires, which can be very difficult to extinguish.

      The Grid System in the South West was basically designed to receive imported electricity to the area from the Midlands. Now most of that generation has disappeared in the Midlands and we are gradually becoming a net electricity exporter. This requires the system voltage to be raised much higher than traditionally has previously been the case, and has become necessary in order to send the electricity up to the Midlands and elsewhere. This has resulted in then local network voltages being close to 250v, in many instances, whereas the European Standard agreed voltage is 230v, a voltage which modern electrical appliances are design to operate at. Ironically this higher operating voltage results in the appliances taking an extra 20% of power and results in a shorter operating life, which rather works against the conservation objectives of saving energy and making items last longer. If anymore renewable energy sites are installed in the south west we are in danger of approaching if not exceeding the statutory maximum supply voltage of 253v and overstressing all our electrical appliances.

      Unlike conventional rotating electrical generators, which provide the means to maintain the voltage at correct levels in a stable and consistent manner, Solar sites are continuously varying in output as the Sun is obstructed by clouds, this in turn has an impact on the voltage and the stability of the local Grid network. As these Solar sites increase in number, the Grid system has an increasingly difficult problem of maintaining system voltage and stability with absolutely no help from the inverter connected solar sites, which only make the situation worse.

      Grid stability in terms of frequency and voltage control is extremely important and is maintained by strategically located conventional rotating plant. Since its inception in the 1930’s the reliability and stability of the Grid has been upheld by the inertial mass of rotating plant synchronised (locked) together with terrific amounts of inertial energy, which is held within these very large generator shafts spinning at 3000 rpm and weighing up to 180 tonnes each. This unseen and largely unrecognised but very necessary benefit is capable of supplying serious amounts of energy instantaneously in the event of a system fault or surge in demand. This process has played a major part in keeping the grid system stable for many years. No one seems to be able to explain how inverter connected equipment is capable of replacing this very significant benefit to maintain grid stability in the future, as Solar site Inverters have no significant stored energy and no means of producing any more energy than the inverter is set to supply and is ultimately restricted by the solar panel output at any particular moment.

      Initially the grid was sourced with 100% rotating plant synchronised together. As more and more renewable energy is connected to the grid, including the inverter connected feeds from Europe, amounting to 6GW nearly 20% of our daily demand. The rotating element of our generation can be as low as 50%. At what point does the grid easily become unstable, particularly in the West Country where there is already a very significant amount of inverter connected generation and very little conventional rotating plant holding it altogether.

      Finally developers claim the Industrial Solar Sites will produce cheaper electricity. As I understand it all grid suppliers “Offer” their electrical energy at market prices and as high as the market suppliers “Bidders” will pay. Hence, it seems that although their energy source ie, the Sun, is potentially cheap, what they seem to get paid for the electricity that they generate relates more to gas and oil generation prices. Add to that in affect that for every solar site developed, somewhere else an equivalent gas turbine or diesel generator or similar 24/7 source of energy has to be installed to maintain the electricity supply when the sun doesn’t shine, which is quite frequently given the weather conditions in this Country. Therefore the true cost of the so called “cheap electricity” is they get paid the market price for the electricity that they produce (which has obviously increased markedly recently) and although solar sites are cheaper to install, there is still the capital installation costs of the replacement generation to consider.

      M A Godfrey CEng MIET

  9. Solar has its place – a policy to produce net zero homes and industrial buildings should be introduced. There’s no excuse to build any building to modern standards that can’t be supported by its own PV, battery and heat pump system and this can be a policy decision made overnight. It’s not about destroying farmland to export to the grid, it’s about new builds not importing from the grid; it’s also the only way solar PV can reduce electricity costs, because the big-multi nationals won’t do it for you. Current market practice is that the energy provider sells electricity at the market rate, so when rates are high the provider makes more profit. I doubt solar PV providers go to the market and announce “I know the market rate is 20p/kWh, but I can generate at 11p/kWh so if you want my electric it’s only 12p and I still make a small margin”; no, they’d pocket the 9p/kWh profit and tell us they are keeping the prices down – just one of many solar myths that need busting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Capitalism and freedom are under attack. If you support 1828’s work, help us champion freedom by donating here.

Keep Reading



Sign up today to receive exclusive insights