Opposition to UK solar farms is a perception problem

As an increasing number of UK solar farm developments are blocked by local planning authorities and countryside groups voice opposition to ‘inappropriate’ and ‘irresponsible‘ solar schemes, a chief advisor to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has spoken of the importance of solar power to the farming community.

Jonathan Scurlock told pv magazine the installation of solar systems – from 50kW rooftops on farm buildings to MW-scale ground mounts in fields – is increasingly being seen as a ‘no-brainer’ for farmers in terms of their return on investment (ROI) and revenue opportunities.

And although conceding the ‘honeymoon period’ is over in terms of securing planning consent for solar developments, Scurlock added public debate about the inappropriateness of solar farms is more about perception than reality.

"At the NFU we have been pleased at the level of interest shown in the solar industry by farmers and land management professionals," Scurlock said, adding 38% of the NFU’s members – some 20-22,000 farmers – have stated an interest in some form of renewable energy technology, with PV the most popular choice.

"The majority of UK developers work through their trade association and follow best practice guidelines developed with stakeholders," added Scurlock, "The talk of intrusive and inappropriate developments is mainly a problem with perception.

‘UK solar industry doing a good job’

"Of course you will always get some ‘developers’ who are interested only in securing planning permission by any means but the UK solar industry has to be seen to be doing a good job and the NFU believes it is doing so.

"It would have been naive to think there would be no opposition to solar developments, as perhaps those proposing wind farms and biomass projects have discovered to their cost in the past.

"During the honeymoon period for solar you may have seen some schemes waved through with very little public debate but now developers have to prove they have engaged fully and consulted with local communities and that is quite right and proper."

The NFU’s chief advisor for renewable energy and climate change said, however, there is a danger a small number of poorly thought-out developments could set the industry back in the UK.

No way to ‘out’ bad developers

"The fear is that a small number of bad apples may spoil the barrel," he added, "unfortunately there is no mechanism for the industry to ‘out’ bad developers – that is down to the planning authorities in the UK."

The importance of the solar industry to an embattled UK farming community is in little doubt, Scurlock said. "Less than four years ago, PV panels on farm buildings were rare," he added. "Now rooftop installations are popular and many new farm buildings are built with south facing roofs with that in mind.

"A 50 kW rooftop costing GBP50,000 (US$82,000) is well within the reach of farm borrowing on secured-loan finance, and even 0.5 MW ground-mount schemes at GBP450,000-500,000 are within reach of larger farms, offering more than a 10% ROI. Solar is an accessible technology that can be used anywhere in the country."

The NFU’s guidance notes on solar energy rebut many of the arguments recently cited by planning authorities and politicians whose vocal opposition to developments has become a feature of the UK political debate 18 months ahead of a divisive general election.

The installation of biodiversity measures such as wildflower planting under and around panels, bat boxes and habitats for bees and other pollinating insects can increase biodiversity on land which would be less diverse under conventional agricultural use, and livestock can continue to graze under elevated panels.

The other main argument cited against countryside solar farms is a fear they will take up prime agricultural land, but the NFU notes that installing 10 GW of panels – half the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s 2020 target – on farmland would occupy only 0.14% of the total area of UK agricultural land.