The escalating politicisation of solar farms

Here we go again. 

On Sunday, the department of environment and rural affairs (Defra) released one of the most astonishing press releases I’ve ever seen. 

In it, environment secretary Elizabeth Truss claimed that solar farms are 'blighting’ the countryside and that her department was taking steps to help control the spread of ‘wasteful’ solar farms across the beautiful British landscape. 

First of all, the disconnect from other governmental departments is astonishing: clearly Truss hasn’t read the department of energy and climate change’s (DECC) national solar strategy very closely and can’t have looked at DCLG’s revised planning guidance for solar farms (not to mention industry efforts to enforce best practice through STA’s 10 Commitments and the National Solar Centre’s biodiversity document).

But the point which will frustrate the industry more than anything is the minister’s comments over the incompatibility of solar farms with agricultural practice. It’s an argument that keeps rearing its head over and over again despite the industry’s close work with farming bodies such as the NFU to provide facts and clarity over the potential of solar farmland for agricultural practices. 

Most worryingly of all, Truss has been allowed to pepper this release with all kinds of emotive language which has been designed to appeal to a very select group of people. Take this quote for example: “English farmland is some of the best in the world and I want to see it dedicated to growing quality food and crops. I do not want to see its productive potential wasted and its appearance blighted by solar farms. Farming is what our farms are for and it is what keeps our landscape beautiful.” [Emphasis added]

This kind of statement is a sad symptom of tactical politicking. The whole press release has been designed to be picked up by the likes of the Daily Mail to help appease fringe conservative voters threatening to abandon the blue and vote UKIP in the upcoming election. 

*It’s probably unrelated but I thought I should mention it anyway, Elizabeth Truss previouly worked for Shell

Fact-based decision making

Last night I attended a joint meeting with the APPG on Science and Technology in Agriculture and the APPG of Beef and Lamb entitled ‘The solar harvest – new opportunities for UK agriculture’. The session was the most frustrating and depressing solar events that I’ve had the pleasure to attend (I’ve been to a few). It could be a post-Solar Energy UK haze that’s amplifying my frustration but I had to do everything in my power not to interject and correct a number of factual inaccuracies. 

The most astonishing of which were delivered by Conservative MP for North Wiltshire, James Gray. In the interest of full transparency here is the full transcript of the speech he delivered to the room pasted below: 

“The NFU seem to me to be seeking to justify what would otherwise be the unjustifiable namely the obliteration of large parts of the countryside. Within 10 miles of my private house in Wiltshire there are currently 60 current applications for solar farms, all of which I hope get stopped. The NFU is justifying the unjustifiable by saying that they [solar farms] are used for agriculture. Now one gentleman I recently talked to, a very large sheep farmer, said that he would not consider putting his sheep anywhere near a solar farm. 

“The NFU are claiming to justify the unjustifiable in terms of landscape and visual appearance by claiming something [farming] that I suspect would occur in a tiny proportion of solar farms. 

“It’s perfectly reasonable to have have this debate on whether we allow the desecration of the countryside in the name of renewable energy but throwing into it ‘but isn’t this great because farmers want it’ is a slight diversion; quite plainly if you’d have the option of grazing your sheep on a plain pasture of grazing your sheep on a solar farm, I suspect I know which one you’d choose. 

“I’ve had one or two farmers talk to me saying ‘it’s great we get all this money, it’s fantastic’ and I tell them ‘it isn’t fantastic and actually you are handing your farm onto the next generation covered in a sodding great mirror’.” 

So, how many factual inaccuracies did you manage to spot in that? 

What’s more, due to the MP's busy schedule, Gray has to leave immediately after delivering this astonishing rant so those in the room couldn’t explain to him the litany of mistakes and misinterpretations he made in his three minute diatribe. Not that I believe for one second that facts could sway his opinion. 

Herein lies the problem, yesterday I sat in a room full of developers and farmers – all of which were talking up the role that solar farms can play in terms of renewable generation, agriculture and biodiversity. The only people who continued to belligerently repeat inaccurate quips that solar developers are covering our countryside in solar farms (10GW would take up 0.1% of total land) were the MPs.   

So what do you do when people in power (or coalition) have an ideological disliking to solar farms? 

It’s incredibly hard. MPs continue to claim that Brits are getting increasingly fed up with the rising number of solar farms across the UK but not a single one has provided any polling or concrete data to back up this claim. In fact, DECC’s opinion polls show that solar is the most popular form of any energy generation technology among Brits. What’s more, developers report that solar farm applications continue to receive incredible levels of local support when going through the planning process. On a personal note, I’ve read a lot of planning applications for solar farms and there is almost always a high level of local support for the scheme. 

As for the Conservatives, they have consistently framed themselves as the party that understands the rural community. Yet this bizarre, unnecessary attack on the development of renewables in the countryside appears to be massively out of step with farmers’ opinions on renewables. I’d suggest that these moves to block onshore wind and curtail solar farms are designed to appeal to one very particular section of society…

Due to younger generations not voting in the same numbers, this section of the country gets a disproportionately loud voice. Now, I don’t want to frame this as a generational argument but sometimes I find it hard not to. 

The point is, those MPs who refuse to make decisions based on facts are not only failing their constituents they are failing future generations. We are all battling climate change, let’s not forget that. 

It’s one of the greatest challenges we face and, if we solve it, we get cheap, renewable energy that will benefit the entire globe. 

Solar will play a substantial role, whether or not UK political meddling intensifies. It’s happening and we’re all playing a part in it. So keep your head high, take on those that doubt with facts and ignore those who refuse to accept facts in favour of ideological preferences.