Solar farms increasingly popular with UK farmers

A new report released on Thursday by Britain’s BRE National Solar Centre examining the common benefits of ground-mounted solar projects on farmland in the United Kingdom.

Developed by the BRE National Solar Centre in partnership with the National Farmers Union, the Solar Trade Association (STA) and a number of leading solar companies, the report examines for the first time good practice in coupling conventional agriculture and ground-mounted solar electricity generation.

According to the Agricultural Good Practice Guidance for Solar Farms, solar deployment and farming can occur simultaneously, with solar farm developers actively encouraging multi-purpose land use to provide economic and ecological benefits by using land between and underneath the rows of PV models available for grazing of small livestock, such as sheep and free-ranging poultry.

The guidance makes clear that the addition of a solar array does not require a reduction in the number of animals – once the plant is built farmers can continue to graze sheep at normal stocking density. Indeed, solar farms are particularly suited to "the fattening of young hill-bred lambs," the report says, adding that 95% of a field used for solar can still be accessible for vegetation growth.

More and more farmers are combining their sheep, chickens or other poultry with rows of solar panels and producing a double output of food and clean, home-grown power, according to the report.

The addition of solar farms also provides farmers with a year-round "solar harvest" to supplement their regular business, the study points out.

Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers Union said it was "clear that renewable energy can support profitable farming, underpinning traditional agricultural production with additional returns that make businesses more resilient."

The guidance document shows how solar farms can be multifunctional, simultaneously meeting food and energy needs as well as enhancing biodiversity, Smith added.

"Only a negligible land take is required to make a major contribution to Britain’s clean energy needs, so the future looks bright for solar grazed lamb and free-range solar chicken."

Leonie Greene, the STA’s head of external affairs, said the planning guidance complemented the association’s efforts to ensure that the solar industry worked in partnership, not in competition, with farming.

"Solar can be combined with agriculture because the panels only take up a small amount of the available land and it is low-impact," Greene said. "Solar can actually increase security for our farmers, and this makes it even harder to understand why the government is proposing to deprive solar farms of resources compared to other low-carbon technologies."

The report looks at the Newlands Farm in Axminster, Devon, where Gilbert Churchill last year chose to supplement his agricultural enterprise by leasing 13 hectares of land for a 4.2 MW PV installation. The solar farm was developed in early 2013 by TGC Renewables and is now operated and managed by Lightsource Renewable Energy. Churchill used the land for grazing prior to building the solar farm and his sheep still graze the same land in between the rows of panels.

Churchill says solar generation "suits the farmers’ industry very much because it gives them a regular income. That’s very important to me and to other farmers as the industry is struggling at the moment to make ends meet. It’s a lifeline."

The farm produces enough green electricity annually to power 1,285 average homes which, in local terms, is about half of the homes in Axminster.

The status of solar farms with livestock on the land remains unclear with regard to U.K. farming subsidies, however. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is still reviewing the 2015 Basic Payment Scheme rules and has not yet made a final decision on eligibility of grazed solar farms.

The study is the latest report on best practice for solar development published by the National Solar Centre. Earlier this year the National Solar Centre, with the Solar Trade Association and leading conservation NGOs, published the Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments on how to use solar farms as wildlife havens.