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Harry McKay: How harnessing the sun can help secure our energy and food supplies


Harry McKay (Climate Programme Intern at CEN)

Following Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, food security has become a contentious issue. Ukraine, known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, provides the world with vast amounts of crops such as wheat, maize and barley. Fortunately for the UK, only 0.5% of food imports in 2021 came from Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the food market is globalised, so shortages and price hikes abroad will still have an impact on the price of food we import from elsewhere. Inflation in the price of food has naturally led to a debate on how we use our land and how we can optimise our food production.


However, food security concerns should not be used as an excuse to slow the march to net zero, which solar farms will help us achieve. Indeed there is no reason why Britain cannot strive to maximise our food production while delivering clean energy. Even on our small island, there is more than enough room to grow sufficient amounts of high quality food and produce homegrown energy.


Many people prefer rooftop solar because it can dramatically cut the energy bills of the individual who has installed the solar panels, but only those with an appropriate roof can access the cheap power it provides. Still, it will be very worthwhile if you can do it! On the other hand, utility-scale solar farms are far more economical because of the economies of scale that can be achieved, which is what makes solar the cheapest energy currently available to us.


In Britain, we are fortunate that we grow the majority of our food. We produce the equivalent of about 60% of domestic consumption and 76% for indigenous food types (crops which can be grown at home), some of which is then exported around the globe. To produce this food, 71% of UK land is dedicated to agriculture, with 72% of this grassland and 26% cropland, the remainder being fallow land.


These figures dwarf the amount of land that is currently being used for solar farms and that of what’s needed if we are to meet our net zero targets. Currently, 0.08% of all land is taken up by solar farms. This would only increase to just under 0.4% if we managed to increase solar coverage to 70GW of capacity, which the Energy Security Strategy stated as the target for 2035. This is the equivalent of less than one third of the land currently occupied by golf courses across the United Kingdom.


The land required for solar in the UK will not come from highly productive farmland. Although it is not illegal for grade 1 quality land (the top grade) to be used for solar farms, it is advised for agricultural land of a grade 3b or lower to be used. The vast majority will come from land which is not used for agricultural purposes, like with the new solar farm at Wednesfield in the West Midlands. This particular solar farm is located on an old landfill site.


Many councils have begun reappropriating land which was previously used for a variety of non-agricultural reasons and transforming them into solar farms. Providing the council with cheap electricity and a steady stream of income, which can use the proceeds to support their work elsewhere. For example, in West Suffolk, the Lakenheath solar farm has raised over £4 million for the local council whose Conservative Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance stated: “This is just one of the many ways the council is not only successfully reducing our impact on the climate but also creating an income stream to support services and other ambitions.” In some rare cases, farmers may choose to use their land for solar generation. However, this is kept to lower grade land, which does not produce food as efficiently.


This is because removing a high-grade field does not make economic sense, as you are likely to have higher returns from agricultural use of high-grade land than by installing a solar farm, unless you combine the two. It makes much more financial sense for farmers to install solar farms on unproductive grade land. Ultimately, while it is a farmer's land and it is up to them to determine what is the best use of their land, there is ample room for crops and solar to coexist in harmony.


Indeed, for many farmers, solar farms can act as a way of both subsidising and reducing the costs of their agricultural operations. Solar can provide a consistent income with little volatility, allowing for long term financial planning and investments to be made with some certainty of income over the lifetime of the solar farm, whereas harvests can be extremely unpredictable. Meanwhile, having access to cheap power helps to cut the cost of business.


This view is consistent with the National Food Strategy Review’s findings, which found that solar does not present a risk to food security in the UK. It also found that solar farms can complement agricultural production, providing income which can be invested in machinery or modernisation of a farm’s agricultural output. This can make it more efficient, thus improving the profitability and supporting food production.


As we look to the future, homegrown electricity from solar farms will be key to our energy security and management of bills, and so it should be seen as desirable as homegrown food. Whether it's on domestic rooftops or in a farmer’s field, the more solar we use, the lower our electricity bills will be. As we transition to net zero, we should encourage those who embrace solar and harness the full force of the sun.

 

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