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The pros and cons of solar in the countryside

Solar farms can have a dramatic effect on the countryside (artist's impression). Solar farms can have a dramatic effect on the countryside (artist's impression). © Shutterstock

We asked voices from both sides of the debate to share their views.

Nomike greeneWhen you look at the economics, the reality is that most renewables just don’t work
by Mike Greene, businessman, philanthropist and campaigner
I’m not against renewable energy. As a matter of fact, I have solar panels on the roof of my house. But when you look at the economics, the reality is that most renewables just don’t work – and are unlikely  to ever work – if you take away the subsidies that come with setting  them up Many local councils are keen to invest in solar energy  because it’s seen as an easy win. They’re not driving these plans forward because of any  green credentials; by slapping down solar panels they can gain access to Government  funding and low-interest loans.

The subsidies involved are huge, because solar and wind energy still aren’t viable without them. One of the key arguments for renewables is the increasing cost of energy. The thing that seems to be ignored is that food prices are predicted to grow at a much  higher rate than energy prices. At the moment, our supermarkets are in a strong  negotiating position and can dictate cheap prices. But as consumption increases in China, India  and Africa, the countries we import so much of our food from will increasingly be able to sell all  their produce at home. We’re in a better position  to grow crops than many countries, but if we haven’t kept our farmland, we’re going to be even  shorter of food.

Our prime, or even secondary, agricultural land is the last place we should be looking to build solar or wind farms. Yet that’s exactly where the city council in Peterborough wants to put 500,000  solar panels – on 900 acres of some of the best-quality  farmland in the country. It’s so fertile it can yield two or three crops  a year, and it’s easy to farm because the area is dead flat. To local  people it’s known as the ‘land of the big skies’; as far as the eye can see, it’s beautiful countryside. A huge sea of solar panels over this area would just look awful. Nor has anyone looked at whether these panels will stay in place on the shifting fenland. 

All the projected profits of the scheme are based on the optimistic, or naive, assumption that the solar panels will last 25 years with hardly any degradation in efficiency. With set-up costs being so high, profit could easily turn into a loss. Meanwhile, tenant farmers whose families have been working this land for five generations are being given notice to leave to make way for energy parks. They’ve sunk  their life savings into their farms, and would receive minimal compensation. If you’re going to have solar, put it on top of buildings, not in the countryside. 

In Peterborough alone, there are 3,000-4,000 council or housing association-owned houses where solar panels could be added, as well as schools, hospitals  and other public buildings. If we’re going to subsidise things, let’s subsidise  roof tiles that work as solar panels, and look at  whether solar could be built into the planning  of all new housing. That’s not going to impact visually on the beautiful countryside, or harm farming, but it could help to generate energy for individual  properties and feed  something back to the National Grid. 

Yesleonie greeneGood solar farms are actually helping to protect our landscapes
by Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association
The UK solar farm industry sprang into life just 18 months ago, owing to major cost reductions. Solar is now cheaper than offshore wind, and our analysis shows it will be the cheapest low-carbon technology before 2020. The STA has been quick to define and promote best practice for solar farm developments. Our 10 key commitments include a focus on poorer-grade agricultural land, visual sensitivity and land management to boost biodiversity.

As with any new industry, there are teething issues, but a few poor schemes have led to a misleading impression of how much has actually been deployed. Only around 1.6GW of solar farm capacity will be in operation by this month, across 150 larger solar farms. Most of these are invisible at ground level. They don’t smell, emit no waste, make no noise and save a lot of carbon. For every 5MW installed, a solar farm will power 1,515 homes for a year and save 2,150 tonnes of carbon dioxide. That probably explains why our YouGov poll shows over 70% public support for good-quality solar farms. There are a lot of preconceptions about solar farms. The first is these are ‘industrial’ developments.

Typically, less than 5% of the land on which a farm is sited is taken up by fixings, leaving 95% available for other uses. That’s why we’ve had such big interest from conservation charities in using solar to provide hotspots for protecting the UK’s declining biodiversity. Yet another myth is that solar is displacing food production. Good practice in the industry now routinely combines solar with existing farming activities, such as sheep grazing or pheasant rearing. Even if the industry delivered as much as 10GW of solar farms by 2020, this would take up just 0.1% of agricultural land – less than non-food crops such as linseed. As our unpredictable weather creates greater crop risks, solar can help farmers stabilise their incomes.

For many UK farmers, incomes are very low, which risks the wider sustainability of the sector. Far from damaging the countryside, good solar farms are actually helping to protect our landscapes. Then there’s climate change. The head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, recently warned that the world is on the brink of irreversible climate damage. The World Bank says we’re on a trajectory for a four-degree temperature rise, with no guarantee that civilisations can adapt. The implications for humanity, let alone our countryside, are dire.

The role of solar globally is seen as central to avoiding catastrophe by respected analysts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sir David King, Jonathon Porritt and The Royal Society. For somebody like me, who works to advance the renewables industry in the face of such an extraordinary threat, it’s important local schemes are seen and valued in this urgent global context. So yes, let’s object to poor schemes that don’t add value to our countryside. But let’s not waste a minute getting behind the solar energy revolution on which so many futures depend.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent CPRE's position on solar energy.

This article is an extract from CPRE's Countryside Voice magazine, summer 2014. Join CPRE to get the full magazine.

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