Solar Policy in the news 2022
It’s not often solar power makes front-page headlines, let alone in the middle of a political crisis. Our Technical Director, Dr Chris Jardine, reviews the latest machinations in Whitehall.
What’s been announced?
The Government is looking to place restrictions on the land available for ground-mount solar power developments, which will restrict the amount of solar deployed across the UK in the longer term. In the short term, many projects already in the development stage will become unviable overnight.
Agricultural land in the UK is graded on a 1-5 basis:
- Excellent quality agricultural land, which is the highest quality and suitable for the widest range of crops
- Very good quality agricultural land, suited for a wide range of crops, but some of the more tricky crops to grow may result in lower yields
3a. Good to moderate quality land – becoming limited in the range of crops that can be grown
3b. Moderate quality land, restricted in the range of crops that can be produced. In practice, this is limited to mainly cereals and grass
- Poor quality land – only suitable for grassland
- Very poor quality agricultural land – restricted to pasture or grazing.
Current planning guidance does not allow the development of solar farms on grade 1 to 3a agricultural land. This seems sensible; using high-quality land to install solar panels does not make sense. In a ‘food versus fuel’ conflict, the consensus is that food should always take priority. This is an argument that has been particularly rife within the biomass sector and in a worldwide context – poorer countries shouldn’t restrict their internal food production to grow fuels for rich western nations. However, the same principles would apply within even developed nations such as the UK.
Solar power is typically not developed on grade 4 and 5 land as these tend to be remote from grids and often with hilly, mountainous or complex terrain. The conflict, therefore, revolves around the use of grade 3b land.
The environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, wants to forbid the use of grade 3b land for developing solar power projects. This is significant as grade 3b land currently makes up 41% of the UK land area.
The move is clearly at odds with the UK’s longer-term climate goals. The Committee on Climate Change recommends that the UK reach 85GW of solar by 2050; there is currently 15GW of solar installed across the UK. Most solar power installed to meet this target will be ground-mounted farms rather than roof-mounted. The use of grade 3b agricultural land is essential to meet this target, given the unviability of grade 4 and 5 land.
Can’t we do both?
One thing being forgotten here is the ability to use land twice. Utilising land for solar PV does not rule out using that land for agriculture. Horses and cattle have the bulk to dislodge solar mounting structures, and pigs and goats may damage cabling. However, sheep and poultry can all be successfully co-farmed under solar panels. The strips between the rows could also be used for grass or high-value vegetable crops, so long as underground cable management can be kept away from tilled areas.
What’s the opposing view?
Whilst the Environment Minister is keen to push restrictions on the use of grade 3b land, the business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg is opposed to the move. He argues that it is ‘unconservative’ to tell farmers what they can and can’t do with their land. He clearly has one eye on longer-term climate targets, stating, “the British energy security strategy set out an expectation for a fivefold increase in solar. It’s clear that we need significant growth in both ground-mount and rooftop solar to meet this ambition.”
How is this internal government debate going to play out? Watch this space, but it will be interesting to see the powerplay between different government departments.
Of course, it may not be up to the current Government to resolve this! The Labour party have stated their ambitions, and Ed Milliband, the shadow Climate Secretary, vowed to treble UK solar power generation during Labour’s first term if successful at the next election. The Liberal Democrats also strongly support solar power, stating: “People are facing higher energy bills, and the UK urgently needs more renewable, reliable energy … solar power is clean, cheap and popular. We shouldn’t block solar but encourage opportunities to develop it.”
Broader Energy Policy Conflicts
In some ways, the debate around ground-mount solar is symptomatic of a broader debate around energy policy within the Conservative party. Broadly this can be split into two factions. On one side are “small c” conservatives – standing for traditional institutions and ways of operating – who would support the status quo for operating an energy system (Big 6 utilities, gas and nuclear fuel mix), and who would see renewables as inherently disruptive, and visually intrusive on the traditional British landscape. On the other side, there is a more free-market approach that believes economics and price are king. Ten to fifteen years ago, both sides would have been aligned. But everything changed when renewables, especially onshore wind and solar PV, became the cheapest sources of generation in the UK. This price difference has become even more marked now that we are in the middle of an energy crisis, caused by the extremely high price of gas and gas-fuelled electricity generation.
So now, both the Conservative party and the conservative supporting press are split on whether to be pro-renewable on the grounds of price, or anti on the grounds of traditional values, visual impact and change to the status quo. Once again, who wins?
What about solar on buildings?
In a recent Guardian article, Jacob Rees-Mogg also revealed some of the Government thinking around solar on buildings. In the piece, Rees-Mogg declared, “We are exploring options to support low-cost finance to help householders with the upfront costs of solar installation, permitted development rights to support deployment of more small-scale solar in commercial settings and designing performance standards to further encourage renewables, including solar PV, in new homes and buildings.”
These three issues have been high on the list of barriers to solar development in the UK, and we support initiatives in this space.
With the cost of solar panels dropping dramatically over the last decade, solar panels are now the cheapest way of providing electricity to a building. Households can generate solar electricity at about 5p/kWh, compared to the 34p/kWh charged by utilities under the electricity price cap – it’s miles cheaper. The only issue is that to access these lower prices, you essentially have to buy 25 years’ worth of electricity upfront – that is to say, the cost of the PV system. This upfront cost is unaffordable to many households, especially the ones who could benefit from cheaper bills the most.
Any policy measure to promote solar PV in the current environment should focus on upfront costs. They do not need subsidies, as they are already economic in their own right. The government has looked at loan finance before, notably the Green Deal. However, these loans were at an unattractive commercial rate of 8%+ per year, which wiped out much of the benefits of the PV. So if loan finance were to be effective, it would have to be offered at 3% or lower – ideally 0% – and this would seem a role that Government could play directly, rather than the private sector.
Second, the government rightly notes solar’s comparatively low uptake in commercial premises. Changes to permitted development rights may help here, but in our experience, this is not a significant issue. The major barriers in the commercial sector are:
- Landlord/tenant split. Businesses want to go solar, but their buildings are owned by a landlord who wouldn’t see the benefits.
- Institutional inertia. Businesses have multiple decision-makers, which makes the project development process slower and less likely to be successful.
- Businesses have other priorities for their capital. Will they spend money on a solar roof or use the funds to employ more staff for their core work? Once again, this is an area where low-cost finance would be helpful, as it would take the solar investment off the balance sheet.
Last, we’d welcome any performance standards for new buildings to be tightened up. Currently, carbon standards are not high enough to meet our future climate targets, meaning new buildings will need retrofitting from the moment they are built. That’s nonsensical and inefficient, so tighter standards and regulations would be a sensible step to addressing this inconsistency.
Dr Chris Jardine is the Technical Director of Joju Solar and a technology and policy expert at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.