With the last incumbent to enter and leave the revolving door of UK prime ministers having caused alarm by reportedly preparing plans to effectively ban big solar on farmland, Harald Överholm, CEO of clean energy company Alight, says politicians need to put discredited arguments behind them and get on with the urgent business of shoring up energy security.
It is no longer contested that our collective climate goals will only be achieved through a swift and comprehensive transition to renewables. The Russian war in Ukraine has propelled Europe into an energy emergency, complicating matters and demonstrating the urgency with which the renewable transition must be approached. Only by producing vast quantities of energy domestically can countries future-proof their energy supplies, ensuring they are no longer held hostage to external geopolitical winds.
Solar energy carries little to no environmental downsides or risks and has enjoyed massive political support across the world yet, despite its obvious merits, there are signs the tide may be turning on this consensus. This is in spite of the sun being by far the most powerful and vast energy source we have; the amount of energy that hits the earth from the sun is 10,000 times higher than we need for all our power demands. At a time when households and businesses across Europe are crying out for energy security, harnessing even a fraction of the sun’s power should be a no-brainer.
For the renewable energy build-out to be realized, governments need to let private enterprizes get on with the job at hand with minimal constraints. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has published figures showing solar PV generation increased by an impressive 22% in 2021. Costs are decreasing and investment in solar systems of all sizes is increasing. Successful renewable energy companies are making huge progress across Europe – see, for example, the great strides in battery development – when unencumbered by heavy-handed governance.
Solar is cheap, fast, and infinitely available but our industry still encounters opposition to the widespread adoption of photovoltaics. The UK’s latest environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, has been developing plans to block solar parks on agricultural land, arguing they disrupt food production. However, ground-mounted solar panels currently cover just 0.1% of all land in the UK, according to trade body Solar Energy UK, and government plans to increase solar to meet net-zero targets are predicted to bring this up to just 0.3%: equivalent to around 0.5% of the land presently used for farming.
Help not hinder
By contrast, according to data from the Corine Land Cover inventory maintained by the European Environment Agency, agricultural land covers 56% of the UK. Furthermore, as solar technology becomes more efficient, it will require even less space. The insinuation that solar and agriculture are in direct opposition to one another is an outdated one that undermines our shared interest in driving security across energy and food alike. Governments across the world should be looking to solar as a means of accelerating their net zero roadmaps, increasing their energy independence and, above all, supporting their citizens at a time of increasing uncertainty.
It is absolutely possible for the agriculture and solar industries to work together. In Sweden, it is common for crops that grow in near proximity to solar parks to benefit from the undisturbed flora and fauna that thrives under the solar panels, bringing biodiversity and pollination to the nearby area. Solar parks are temporary installations that cause no land damage and can easily be combined with sheep and other positive biodiversity initiatives.
As observed by Solar Energy UK in May, the promotion of biodiversity at Sawmills solar farm in Devon saw overall gains in the species of birds and invertebrates monitored at the site from 2015 to 2021. Accurate good-practice guidelines which are continually updated to reflect new research and findings will play a key role in promoting biodiversity; the most recent one by Solar Energy UK correctly notes that the agricultural land assessments already used in the UK “predate solar farm planning applications. Solar farms can remain in agricultural production throughout their operational life and are granted temporary consent.”
Furthermore, solar can, and should, be built on low-grade agricultural land of which there is plenty, ensuring there is no impact on overall food output while spurring biodiversity in nearby farmland. In future, and where necessary, larger scale solar installations can always be removed with ease if we decide to repurpose or utilize low-grade farmland in a different way than previously envisaged.
Through technological advancements such as battery storage, the solar industry’s trajectory is only upward. With the correct outlook, this will present opportunities for governments to become bastions of green industry by ensuring a smooth transition from non-renewable to renewable jobs in the energy sector. In the case of solar, there are a lot of job opportunities in terms of installing solar panels, for laborers and electricians and also those involved in the logistical planning necessary when dealing with global supply chains. The skills and traits required in fossil fuel jobs are often, contrary to popular belief, vital to solar too.
The arguments for a rapid solar build-out are self-evident, much like the rebuttals to recent short-sighted opposition. In the midst of an energy crisis, our focus should be on positive steps we can take to strengthen our energy independence, not undermine it; governments should review and reduce barriers to land development, reform roofing regulations for rooftop solar, and make the interconnection process easier. The proposed EU Solar Rooftop initiative, to gradually make solar installations mandatory on new buildings, is an important step in the right direction and, we hope, will precipitate the necessary reforms from individual states.
These are long overdue yet crucial steps that can be undertaken with immediate benefits, allowing private enterprises to get on with the job at hand. More government interference is not going to boost the green transition, and might even delay energy security across Europe and beyond. Likewise, attempts to pit the solar and agricultural industries against each other are futile and counter-productive, particularly when both clearly have a shared interest in driving sustainability and should be working together. By embracing the potential of solar, we can drive new energy supplies at scale and cost, create green jobs, and ensure a cleaner, more sustainable future for all.
Author: Dr Harald Överholm
Harald is the co-founder and CEO of Alight, one of Europe’s leading providers of solar energy to businesses. Before founding Alight, he was a cleantech venture capitalist and an advisor on solar markets to the WWF and the Swedish government. He is a former member of the IEA’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program work group on solar business models. He earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge with a thesis on solar diffusion and was a keynote speaker at Davos Energy Week 2021, where he delivered a speech on “Subsidy-free solar in EU – the rapid market expansion going forward.
This article was originally published in pv magazine and is republished with permission.
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