As the Tories announce a ban on new solar farms on agricultural land, we need to wonder why.
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Well here we are in a lovely sunny day in October and the sun has rather reminded me of a story I heard today or yesterday that the government is seeking to ban solar farms on farmland or installing solar panels on farmland, with the excuse being that we should be prioritizing food production now.
There’s a couple of things about this. One is that at the same time they’re pushing to reopen and licence more North sea oil and gas exploration. Stopping solar and trying to encourage gas in a time of climate emergency is pretty stupid. But that aside, you have to remember why solar farms are appearing on farmland. There’s two things. One, you can actually farm underneath them. If you have certain crops or maybe poultry and other livestock, you can put them under soda panels. That’s fine. You can have dual use in a lot of these fields, so it’s absolutely efficient as a way of using the space.
That’s the first thing. So it’s not wasting space that for agriculture, it’s getting extra use out of space that would’ve had less use, and that’s an important point. Another thing is why farmers are leasing their land, or sometimes doing this themselves, for solar?
Well, it’s because they can’t make the money on the agriculture because food is undervalued. Even though food prices are going up, they still don’t get paid enough to cover the cost of production, or the land is generally not suitable for the sort of agriculture that would make the money. So why not, they think, make some money from renewables and let’s face it, the country could do with the energy.
So why is the government saying that they can’t do that? Well, from broad perspective, placing solar panels on agricultural land doesn’t make sense. We should be putting them on land that’s otherwise used for buildings, for example, on roofs.
That would be the most sensible place to put them. But the government’s not doing that, is it? It’s not mandating solar panels on roofs for new buildings or existing buildings. It’s largely ignoring the fact that we’ve got all this space we could be generating energy from, and it’s up to private individuals whether they do or not, and of course of there is a cost to that.
But the government is not encouraging anyone to do it. In fact, it’s discouraging people from doing it by scrapping FIT payments. So farmers are choosing to do this because they’re not getting the money from the agriculture that they could be running on that land. The main reason they’re not getting the money is because of Brexit.
It’s now much harder for people to make money to cover the cost of production from farming because of the friction that has been introduced into selling our goods to our main customer, which is obviously also our closest customer, the EU - both Ireland and the rest of Europe. That’s now much harder, much more costly for farmers to do. What were already pretty tight margins are much tighter, so a lot of farmers have either decided to stop producing certain products, or in fact not be farmers at all any more, and others are diversifying. Now, whether that’s camp sites or solar farms or anything else like that, these are all way farmers can make money from their land when the land is not paying for itself with agriculture.
Now we’ve seen also at the same time, if you remember, the government rolled back on their commitment to pay farmers for stewardship when Brexit happened. There was talk of ending subsidies for just growing loads of food we don’t need and pay farmers for looking after land. While you may not have noticed, that’s all been rolled back, There was some optimistic talk about it, and lots of farmers even applied for some of these grants, but they’ve all been shelled for the indefinite future. So what are farmers going to do? You tell them they can’t set up solar farms, they’re going to have to do something else.
What? What could that something else be? I can tell you what it wouldn’t be - it wouldn’t be as useful for getting us out of the energy crisis because ultimately we need more renewable generation in this country. And if farmers are the people willing to allow their land to do it, and the consumers with roofs and the money to buy panels aren’t doing it, let the farmers do it and get us out of a hole. By stopping them you’re just going to increase reliance on gas and increase energy prices, which isn’t going to help anyone.