Are Solar Farms Affecting Food Production?

One of the major benefactors of the development of solar power in the last few years has been farms that have allowed some of their land to be used for large, financially productive solar plants. For many landowners it is seen as a viable proposition to bring in extra money from a clean, renewable energy source.

The problem is that it is beginning to create a few rumbles in parliamentary circles as politicians debate whether installing so many wind farms is having a detrimental effect on our own food production. According to farming minister George Eustace in the Guardian this month, there could be well over 1,000 solar farms in the UK by 2020 but there are concerns that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has underestimated the impact this could have on our farming economy.

Why Solar Farms are So Popular

With farmers being continually squeezed on profit margins by the large supermarkets, many businesses have been forced into finding additional income to keep themselves going in the current financial climate. Hiring out land to solar and wind farm developers or taking on the investment themselves has proved to be a good move for many land owners who have been able to benefit from income provided by rents or the government’s Feed in Tariff that pays producers for their electricity.

Building a solar farm depends on having a large amount of land available and having the right site-specific factors in place. Many developers will pay farmers around £1,000 per acre in rent a year to use their land and, for those farmers willing to make the initial investment, it can offer a significant and quick return on investment with the government Feed in Tariff. Developers also benefited in the past from healthy government and EU grants to invest in renewable technologies though this may well be coming to an end as ministers raise concerns that farm land should be used for producing food and not electricity.

Cutting the Solar Farm Subsidy

Environment minister Liz Truss recently said in the Daily Mail that landowners will have to stop pocketing lucrative subsidies and use their land for what it was intended. The change is set to take place from next January as David Cameron’s government tries to distance itself further from more green policies. It is one of the major factors that could affect the growth of the solar industry over the next few years.

Whilst many opponents of renewable energy initiatives point to the ‘blot on the landscape’ caused by such installations, the main issue at the moment seems to be how much land is being taken out of commission by the development of large scale solar farms.

Defra have been surprisingly unforthcoming with any concrete details about the overall impact on land usage. Whilst there are developers who have committed to allowing livestock near their expensive solar panel arrays, there are others who are naturally reticent about letting potentially damaging cows and sheep graze in close proximity to their plants. That means we are ending up with less land which is devoted to farming.

It’s not just livestock that is affected. According to Labour’s Paul Flynn there is also concern about the amount of land that is being taken away from crop production. The argument has produced a robust response from the solar industry that has argued installations all take into account biodiversity and the effect on food production.

There is no doubt that things are set to change and the government is taking a stronger stance on solar energy in rural areas. It follows on from the decision to block two large scale solar farm builds in the last year, one in Hacheson, Suffolk that would have been the biggest in the UK with 100,000 solar panels covering 127 acres. It was a signal to the industry suggesting that any future developments on such a scale would also have little chance of being agreed to, something that could cause a major blow to renewable development in the country.

Also at the heart of the issue has been the amount of subsidies that are being used to create our renewables portfolio in the UK, with many now believing that getting the taxpayer to fund such developments is untenable for the long term future, particularly following the long term problems created by the financial crash of 2008.

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