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.