UK farmers with PV to lose subsidies under new guidelines

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The UK government has continued its assault on the development of large-scale solar following an announcement on Sunday that farmers with PV installed on agricultural land will next year no longer be eligible for farm subsidy payments through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The decision by the department of environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) to deny pro-solar farmers access to the CAP subsidy has been met with scorn by the U.K.’s solar industry. Environment secretary Liz Truss spoke out emotively against the use of solar power on British farmland, remarking that her "heart sinks to see row upon row of solar panels where once there was a field of wheat or grassland for livestock to graze".

Worth more than $140 billion to the U.K. economy each year, British farmland has nonetheless become less profitable in recent years, prompting many farmers to seek out other uses for their land. One option has been the installation of large-scale solar farms, with the National Farmers Union (NFU) in support of such a practice.

Dr. Jonathan Scurlock, the NFU’s chief advisor on renewable energy and climate change, told pv magazine that farmers across England and Wales have been excited by the commercial opportunities that exist with solar PV.

"The NFU recently published Agricultural Good Practice Guidance with the BRE National Solar Centre showing how coupling the grazing of small livestock with field-scale solar power offers new opportunities to optimize land use for both food and energy production," Scurlock said. "Large-scale solar is already providing a lifeline for many farmers, underpinning agricultural production with additional returns that make their business more resilient."

However, Defra’s announcement seeks to actively punish farmers that have chosen to install solar PV on their land, with Truss’ words leaving little doubt as to where the department’s priorities lie. "I do not want to see English farmland’s productive potential wasted and its appearance blighted by solar farms," said Truss.

"That is why I am scrapping farming subsidies for solar fields. Solar panels are best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south-facing commercial rooftops where they will not compromise the success of our agricultural industry."

That last line is in chorus with the rhetoric emanating from the U.K.’s Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which has decided to withdraw the Renewable Obligation (RO) subsidy for large-scale solar two years ahead of schedule. DECC also cites the proposed development of commercial rooftops as the U.K.’s best option for solar development, despite offering very few tweaks to the current FIT subsidy in order to make the sector more attractive.

Misguided principles

According to Defra, this latest subsidy change will save the U.K. taxpayer up to $3.5 million a year and will, in Defra’s own words, “help halt the expansion of ground-based solar farms as [the sector] will now become less financially attractive for farmers to install solar panels".

This blatant undermining of solar’s growth has been labeled "damaging and incorrect" by the Solar Trade Association (STA), which has announced that it is to write to Truss arguing that the matter need not be an either/or scenario.

"The government’s own planning guidance makes clear that farming practices should continue on solar farms on Greenfield land,” said the STA’s head of external affairs, Leonie Greene. “The industry, working with the NFU, has been very careful to define good practice to ensure continued agricultural production."

The STA’s and NFU’s guidance shows that solar fixings, when installed on agricultural land, use up just 5% of it, leaving enough room for continued agricultural practices such as sheep, geese or chicken farming. In terms of political funding, argues Greene, solar panels should be treated in the same way as orchards of fields with trees – the panels producing energy instead of food, with animals still able to graze the land beneath and between.

"Solar farms have an important role to play in conserving our countryside," added Greene. "Not only can solar power save huge amounts of greenhouse gases, but solar farms can also provide protected space for boosting biodiversity, such as wildflowers and bees, as well as providing greater income stability for farmers who face increasing weather risk due to climate change."

Defra farming minister George Eustice rebuffed these claims in an interview with the Western Morning News. "Some developers have attempted to claim that farming can continue underneath solar panels, but these are sham arguments which we reject," he said.

Come January, Defra will exercise its powers to deny eligibility for farm subsidy payments available through the CAP to land where solar panels are installed. The CAP payments are worth around $150 per acre, so a farmer with solar panels installed could lose up to $10,000 per year.

This latest knee-jerk response by the U.K. government to solar’s growth is designed to do little more than "appease reactionary voices" said Alasdair Cameron of Friends of the Earth.

"Poorly sited solar farms should be dealt with through the planning system and sensible policy […] constantly fiddling with renewable energy policies and sending mixed messages to the media will cost Britain dearly in jobs, investment and energy security," he added.

The NFU, in collaboration with the STA, has calculated that just 0.14% of the total U.K. agricultural area (25,000 hectares) could host 10 GW of ground-mounted solar PV, which is half the national ambition outlined in DECC’s solar strategy. Currently, the U.K. has almost 6 GW of solar PV deployed, of which between 2.4 GW and 2.8 GW will have been newly added in 2014.

According to NPD Solarbuzz vice president Finlay Colville, there is currently between 2.4 GW to 2.5 GW of solar PV capacity installed on ground-mounted sites across the U.K.

"This sector is heavily weighted to agricultural locations, with landfill sites providing an increasing percentage share but still a small part of the overall deployment," Colville told pv magazine.

"Agricultural deployment remains above 2 GW today, having all been added since the start of 2011."