The impact of solar PV developments on biodiversity and food security were spoken of during the debate. Image: Getty

MPs have this week spoken out about the development of large-scale solar PV, citing concerns over food security, biodiversity and supply chains.

Speaking in a debate on large-scale solar farms in the House of Commons on Wednesday 9 March, several MPs called for a national strategy for solar farms, most notably MP for Rutland and Melton Alicia Kearns, who said: “Ultimately, we need a national policy on solar farms. We cannot see this constant competition for the biggest possible solar plant being imposed all across the UK.

“We need to make sure that we do not have tainted supply chains, and we must protect our natural environment and our ability to feed our people.”

Kearns referenced the 350MW Mallard Pass solar farm under development between Windel Energy and Canadian Solar in South Kesteven, Lincolnshire and Rutland, which she has previously spoken out against.

Kearns once again referenced the allegations of forced labour practices and human rights abuses against the Uyghur people in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which is home to several polysilicon producers. Canadian Solar, alongside LONGi, JinkoSolar and Trina Solar, have all had module shipments seized in the US following the US government blocking the imports of some solar products with links to Xinjiang.

“As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and as a member of the British public, I do not expect to see blood labour on our soil,” Kearns said, calling on the government to impose sanctions against Canadian Solar.

Solar Power Portal has contacted both Mallard Pass and Canadian Solar for a response to the comments.

MP for Grantham and Stamford Gareth Davies said it is “critical” there is a national strategy for solar farms, stating this should encompass both nationally significant and locally approved applications “to ensure that counties such as Lincolnshire are not dominated by significant developments and small developments that add up to complete domination by solar farms across the county”.

The concerns surrounding the development of solar PV on agricultural land stem from the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia, with Ukraine producing some of the wheat used in the UK. MPs cited rising prices of wheat, with Ian Paisley, MP for North Antrim, stating: “It is essential that we address the key issue of allowing developers to get away with putting vast industrial plants on good, grade 1, arable land that we could grow grain on, or have cattle graze on, to develop our food security.”

However, the need for the UK to wean itself off of both Russian oil and gas – with energy prices becoming extremely volatile as a result of the war in Ukraine – and oil and gas as a whole as a result of the soaring prices seen in the past six months or so was also discussed.

“Solar farms are an integral part of the UK’s bid to get to net zero and to reduce our reliance on oil and gas, yet there are many myths around solar,” Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, said.

In response to the concerns around the environment raised in the debate, she cited studies indicating that solar farms can be used to boost biodiversity, improve land quality and promote the growth of pollinating species. Late last year, for example, research from Lancaster University found that changes to the way solar PV land in the UK is managed could see sites support four times as many bumble bees, while 2019 research found that solar can help improve biodiversity of sites, with solar sites being mostly isolated from human impact, as well as typically causing less than 5% disturbance to the ground, meaning the remainder of the land can be used for plant growth and wildlife enhancements.

Indeed, Hobhouse said that under the Environment Act 2021, all new developments are required to demonstrate a biodiversity net gain, including solar. Recently announced expected net gains in biodiversity of solar farms include Anesco's High Meadow site (173% expected net gain) and Moat Farm site (216%), alongside three 49.9MW sites developed by Enso Energy and Ceo Generation which are expected to deliver a biodiversity net gain of 46%.

Suggestions for solutions to the concerns surrounding large-scale solar farms outside of a national strategy included a reintroduction of the feed-in tariff to encourage uptake of residential solar- although it was stated this would not need to be as high a tariff as previously due to solar panels being competitively priced.

MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, said that distribution network operators (DNOs) have “great difficulty” connecting large-scale solar farms. “Solar power should therefore be spread across the community, and should be generated on brownfield sites and in industrial buildings,” he said.

Indeed, grid connections remain a barrier for the development of solar in the Republic of Ireland, for example, however solutions for easier connection of solar includes UK Power Network's flexible connections, which enables owners of distributed generation to connect cheaper and faster by removing upfront costs for upgrading the electricity network in return for turning down generation at certain times.

Standing in for the energy minister, George Freeman, MP for Norfolk and parliamentary undersecretary, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “. . .we see solar as key to the government’s strategy for low-cost energy and decarbonisation, and large-scale solar is one of the UK’s cheapest renewable generation technologies . . .”

He highlighted how solar is a very flexible technology, generates large amounts of electricity even on cloudy days, works at cooler temperatures, meaning its carbon footprint is normally much lower than that of coal or gas, and has components that can mostly be recycled.

Freeman also referenced an upcoming government consultatation on reform proposals for the nationally significant infrastructure project regime, in which the government will review the national policy statements for energy. 

“The draft revised national policy statement for renewables includes a new section on solar projects, providing clear and specific guidance to decision makers on the impact on, for example, local amenities, biodiversity, landscape, wildlife and land use, which must be considered when assessing planning applications,” Freeman said.