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What’s going on with solar projects in the UK?



Overview


The UK government has displayed efforts to ban solar projects on most farmland because they view solar projects as a threat to food resources. As former Prime Minister, Liz Truss, says, “I think one of the most depressing sights when you're driving through England is seeing fields that should be full of crops or livestock, full of solar panels.”


According to Solar Energy UK approximately 230 square kilometres, which is less than 0.1% of land in the UK, is currently being used for solar projects. In comparison, around 70% of UK land is used as agricultural land; 70,000 square km for grazing cows and sheep, and 67,000 square km for growing cereals and legumes. Furthermore, data showing 0.5% of land being used for golf courses emphasises how minor the impacts of solar projects are on land usage.


Are the “best and most versatile” land (BMV) in danger?


BMV, the best and versatile land for farming, may be redefined as officials have requested to include middle-to-low category 3b, in addition to categories 1, 2, and 3a. At the same time, the government plans to limit solar panel constructions on BMV, hindering solar development significantly. This is because grade 4 and 5 upland areas are unsuitable for solar developments.


Such changes are encouraged by politicians who raise food security as a concern towards solar projects. However, solar projects do not harm food supply as much as energy insecurity and climate change does. We cannot forget how interconnected food and energy are, as made clear by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Climate change, not solar power, is the biggest medium to long-term risk to UK’s domestic food supply.” Solar energy will help farmers benefit from lower energy costs, stable revenue stream, and would be contributing significantly less to depletion of farmland from the carbon emissions caused by fossil fuels.


Agri voltaic


It is also important to understand that solar panels and agriculture can co-exist. Many crops do not require extreme amounts of sunlight and can grow under solar panels. Livestock can also benefit from solar panels because it provides shade and shelter. Furthermore, as technology advances at a rapid speed, energy efficiency for solar panels will continue to increase. There are multiple ways to install solar panels whilst using the land efficiently (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Types of agrivoltaics systems that have been deployed commercially, Source: Macknick et al. (2022).


What does this mean for SMEs?


Below are the some of the benefits SMEs can experience from increased solar energy consumption;

· Lower and stable energy costs,

· Meeting net zero targets,

· Appeal to green conscious investors and stakeholders.


As energy costs continue to surge, energy transition is key to building a resilient business. With increased solar energy consumption, SME’s business development will not be influenced by the volatility of oil prices. It will also boost their reputation and attract investors, as stakeholders increasingly value sustainability.


However, the harsh reality is that most SMEs do not have the capital (time and money) to invest in energy transition. Surveys show even for engaged SMEs that are planning to implement an energy policy, a lack of time and money was cited by 46% as a barrier compared to 15% or lower for other barriers. This is alarming as SMEs comprise 99% of the country’s business environment and generate around 60% of its commercial waste as well as more than 43% of its industrial pollution. And SMEs account for 50% of the UK's business sector emissions (UK Gov, 2022).


If manifested, UK Government’s efforts to ban solar projects will decelerate the energy transition processes and will make it more costly to decarbonise for SMEs. We hope to see the new Prime Minister make changes to the planned regulations so as to encourage a smooth and less costly energy transition which will benefit all businesses in the long run.


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