The now-infamous proclamation by U.K. environment secretary Liz Truss that the sight of row-upon-row of solar panels makes her "heart sink" appears couched in increasingly political terms following reports that her own department could not find any hard evidence that solar panels cause serious damage to food production.
The Guardian newspaper and Solar Power Portal have reported that documents released under a freedom of information (FOI) act show that the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) Direct Payments Team informed the U.K.s Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) that "it is not possible to argue that, at the national level, there is yet a serious impact [by solar farms] on agricultural output."
Despite such evidence-based advice from her own department, Truss made the controversial decision a few weeks later to sanction the removal of CAP subsidy payments for farmers land that is covered in solar panels.
Truss argued at the time that as environmental secretary she was "committed to food production in this country", and labeled the "ugly" panels a "blight on the countryside and villages" in what now appears to be a politically motivated attack on large-scale solar rather than a genuine desire to protect food production.
A guessing game
In the documents released under the FOI, Defra officials appear to have very little understanding of just how much farmland in the U.K. is covered by solar panels; are unable to accurately state with confidence how much money will be saved with the CAP removal, yet do state confidently that the suggestion that solar panels are harmful to food production is unfounded.
Also revealed in the documents and reported by pv magazine at the time is evidence that the National Farmers Union (NFU) was against the removal of the CAP payments, arguing that solar and certain agricultural activity could coexist.
"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," Dr. Jonathan Scurlock, the NFUs chief advisor on renewable energy and climate change, told pv magazine. "Large-scale solar is already providing a lifeline for many farmers, underpinning agricultural production with additional returns that make their business more resilient."
The ministers decision to remove the CAP subsidy angered the U.K.s solar industry at the time, and these recent revelations are unlikely to come as too great a surprise to many. Back in November, farming minister George Eustice admitted in a written response to a question from Labours shadow climate change minister Julie Elliott that Defra had "made no estimate of the amount of land occupied by solar panels which was arable land usable for economically farmed fruits or vegetables".
Many within the industry have continued to question Truss, and the governments, motives on what is perceived as an attack on large-scale solar installations in the U.K. pv magazine has seen emails from industry representatives asking whether Truss, in her stance against solar and specifically the claim that it is a "blight" on the landscape applies equally to other forms of energy generation. "Such as fracking," asked Alex Fornal of juwi Renewable Energies, "will Truss ensure together with her colleagues within Defra that no agriculturally productive land will be displaced by fracking activities?"
Ben Cosh of TGC Renewables also questioned whether Truss was willing to step in to halt the march of farmland being turned into golf courses, while the Solar Trade Association spokeswoman Leonie Greene issued the following statement: "What we want is an evidence-based approach to policy. The impact of solar farms is negligible in terms of land take, many times smaller than golf courses. Weve taken great care as an industry to avoid conflict with food production, and the co-existence of farming for grazing or poultry on low grade land is clear."
Truss maintained her stance that solar is an eyesore on the British landscape in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last December, and parroted the governments own rhetoric that solar in the U.K. is best placed to grow atop the roofs of schools, factories, commercial centers and private residences.
"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," Truss told the Daily Telegraph.
Currently, existing and planned solar farms in the U.K. cover approximately 18,700 acres of land, while cumulative installed capacity including rooftop installations of all sizes stands at slightly more than 5 GW, according to official figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).
British solar company Green Hedge estimates that 35 GW of solar farms could be built on less than 1% of permanent U.K. pasture, generating enough solar power to meet 10% of the countrys electricity demand.