Plans to restrict ground-mounted solar installations from marginal agricultural land by the Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, have elicited a firestorm of criticism across the board, from environmentalists to free-market think tanks to the National Farmers Union.
Confronted by overwhelming evidence that banning solar development from 41% of land in England would increase energy bills, deter thousands of jobs and billions of investment, delay decarbonisation, and increase foreign gas imports, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has argued the measure is necessary to preserve farmland and bolster domestic food security.
Notably, none of the recommendations from last summer's 290-page National Food Strategy advised any limitations on PV development. That should come as no surprise as these installations currently occupy less than 0.1% of England and might increase to 0.3% in a net-zero future (a third of the coverage of golf courses). Let us take the Department's proposition at face value and consider the policy measures available to achieve these objectives.
The main challenges facing our food producers are competition from more generously subsidised foreign farmers, diminished interest from younger generations, sharp spikes in the cost of inputs (namely energy), soil exhaustion, and climate change. Redefining the marginal farmland in question, Grade 3B, to the "best and most versatile" (BMV) categorisation would do nothing to address these issues. There are now tens of thousands of acres of 3B land already lying unused or abandoned. The Government's proposal would only make it harder to bring them into service.
Ground-mounted solar is already playing a critical role in supporting British farmers. Hundreds have leased part of their properties for commercial PV installations, delivering steady revenue streams to diversify their incomes and provide a hedge against commodity price swings. Thousands more have invested in smaller solar net-metering assets, which can offset and decarbonise their own energy consumption at a fraction of market prices and sell surplus generation to the grid.
Solar installations are often complementary to agriculture practices, such as the 49.9 MW Bluefield project in County Durham that would maintain 130 acres for sheep grazing while generating 13,000 homes worth of electricity. Other sites leverage panel installations to introduce native vegetation and endangered species to improve soil health and pollination. In the near future, there's tremendous potential in Britain for the more integrated practice of agrivoltaics, which already delivers 14 GW worldwide. Only a 'nanny state' would willingly strangle these opportunities with red tape.
If this Government is committed to improving food security, there are two readily available policy measures at its disposal. The first is to follow through on delivering the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), a proposal to incentivise farmers adopting sustainable practices that's been endorsed by every stakeholder in the field.
The second is a long-overdue reform of the nation's biofuel standards. Courtesy of our former membership in the European Union, British law requires a 9.6% component of renewable fuels in our petrol. But what was once a promising initiative to reduce carbon emissions has become a glaring climate failure. Hundreds of billions of pounds of subsidies have committed a tenth of all global crop yields to biofuel production, consuming vast tracts of prime arable land and devastating vulnerable wildlife habits.
This experiment has delivered absolutely no discernable carbon benefit while systematically exacerbating global food insecurity. As the decarbonisation of transport is actively being realised through electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, humouring these distortions make less sense than ever.
Nevertheless, last year the Department of Transportation decided to align with the European Union in raising the biofuel component to 14.6% by 2032. That's two years after we're to have banned the sale of new internal combustion engines. Satisfying this obligation will cost British consumers an extra £23 billion, conscripting 107,300 hectares of our farmland, and wasting enough food to feed 3.5 million people per year.
If Ranil Jayawardena is serious about improving our food security, he'll reject the Anti-Growth Coalition's obsession with denying affordable energy to our hard-working farmers. Instead, he should walk across Horseferry Road and have a conversation with his colleague, Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, concerning our continued subservience to the EU's failed biofuels policy.
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