Solar panels below a clear blue sky
The EAC chair thanked parliament for providing “clarity” on the matter. Image: UK Parliament.

The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, has responded to parliament’s statement that solar developments should not be placed on land suitable for agriculture.

Yesterday (May 15), Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Claire Coutinho made a statement regarding developing new solar farms, clarifying that developers should, where possible, seek to develop on brownfield sites, contaminated land, and industrial land.

In response, Dunne said: “Whatever path the UKtakes to delivering Net Zero, solar energy is the renewable generation source likely to power many homes and businesses. The Committee I chair is examining measures to enable sustainable electrification of the economy, and has called for a national mobilisation to deliver energy efficiency measures like solar panels on new developments.

“But progress on solar energy must not undermine the UK’s ability to deliver a sustainable supply of food, which was the subject of a report on food security issued by our committee earlier this year.

“The government is right to provide clarity here, prioritising the higher grades of agricultural land for food production and ensuring that farmers are able to maintain food security in the coming years.

“I therefore welcome today’s confirmation that solar energy developers should avoid ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land – that best suited for growing crops – when selecting areas they intend for solar farms.

“I am also encouraged by the announcement that the government plans to expand the Renewable Energy Planning Database. This will offer the opportunity to consider concentrations of solar applications, avoiding ‘clustering’ of projects which can concern some rural communities.”

Roofs, not fields

In the UK and worldwide, the use of high-quality agricultural land for solar developments has recently become a controversial debate. Clair Coutinho’s statement noted: “I want to see more solar on rooftops and, where that’s not possible, for agricultural land to be protected and for the cumulative impact on local villages to be considered where they are facing a high number of solar farm applications.

“We will make sure we reach our solar targets in a sensible way, that delivers clean, cheaper energy but does not compromise our food security.” Meanwhile, in Italy, the government has banned the development of solar projects on agricultural land entirely, which Italy’s solar trade association has said will cost the nation €60 billion. This comes mere months after the European Commission approved a funding package of several billion Euros to support the development of solar on agricultural land.

Recent international instability has led many nations to consider not only their energy security but also the security of their food supply, with many nations shifting their focus to boosting domestic agriculture.

While the debate on the placement of solar farms on agricultural land is still ongoing, it is worth noting that solar farms can have a provable benefit to local biodiversity. In March of this year, Solar Energy UK released a study that praised solar farms as “havens of biodiversity” noting that many vulnerable species of bird, including skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and starlings, are some of the most common wildlife seen on UK solar farms.

The report also highlighted several case studies that prove the potential of sharing land for agriculture and solar development – a concept known as “agri-PV”. The report showed it was possible to successfully grow chamomile for commercial use between rows of solar panels, and also highlighted the success of growing wild garlic and bluebells on solar farms.

Solar Power Portal’s publisher Solar Media will host the UK Solar Summit on 4-5 June 2024 in London. The event will explore the UK’s new landscape for utility and rooftop solar, looking at the opportunities within a GW+ annual market, and much more. For more information, go to the website.