(But not too much)
Here in the UK we have just had the hottest day of the year and we're moving towards an even hotter one, with predicted temperatures of up to 33°C. What our Australian listeners would probably call a bright winter’s day. Nevertheless we have warnings from the NHS and a heat-health warning from the Met Office.
What about all that sunshine? Let's not waste it. Let's install more solar panels and increase the nation’s energy security. But wait, amid warnings of a possible food crisis should we be covering agricultural land with solar panels? I first came across this issue a year ago when I met Robert & Emma Sturdy campaigning against the installation of solar on their farm at Old Malton in North Yorkshire. They are tenant farmers and the landowner has received an offer from a solar farming company which would pay far more than the rent that are currently paying. If the solar farm goes ahead it takes away a large proportion of their farm, fields on which they raise livestock. What remains would not be a viable agricultural unit.
They are not alone in opposing solar farms. The Solar Campaign Alliance lists dozens of projects across the country which are in dispute, ranging from 70 acres to 2,800.
Now, before we go any further, some definitions.
1 acre = 0.405 hectare
1 hectare = 2.47 acres
You’ll find that information and links to all the source which I’ve used for this article on the Sustainable Futures Report website.
The total area of the projected solar farms listed on the Solar Campaign Alliance amounts to 21,650 acres or 8,750ha. There are other projects not listed, like Langford Solar Farm in Devon. There the project was rejected by Mid-Devon District Council, but it is facing a planning enquiry. The council have said that they will not maintain their opposition to the scheme, following undisclosed expert advice, a change to the membership of the planning committee and a meeting behind closed doors.
Agricultural Land Lost
Going back to the bigger picture, how significant would the loss of this agricultural land be? The answer is, not very. The total area used for agriculture in the UK amounts to 17,300,000 ha. The 8,750 ha listed by the Solar Campaign Alliance therefore accounts for something like 0.05% of the total. It is probably two or three times greater as a proportion of good agricultural land, but still relatively small.
What will these projects do for the supply of solar energy in the UK? Extrapolating from the figures provided by the promoters of the projects, if they were all built this would increase solar generation capacity by 7.3GW. (A gigawatt is 1,000MW or 1,000,000kW.) This would be more than a 50% increase on the current installed capacity of 13.9GW. Total electricity demand in the UK varies depending on the time of day and the time of year, but generally falls in the range of 30-50GW.
You can monitor it in real time on https://gridwatch.templar.co.uk. Checking it now, just before midday on Thursday 16th June, solar is filling just under 19% of demand even though it is operating at about 50% of capacity: 6.5GW.
Solar capacity increased to 21GW would be a significant addition to the UK’s renewable energy resources. Of course solar power is intermittent and of no use when demand is at its peak on dark winter evenings. Wind can take the load then, as long as the wind is blowing, although today it’s filling under 4% of demand, yielding just 1.2GW from 24.6GW installed capacity.
So is it in the national interest to push all these schemes forward? Maybe. But how feasible is it?
We rely on China for most of our solar panels. Specialists in the industry tell me that you can get panels with an ethically proven supply chain, at a premium of about 50%. If you don’t ask any questions your panels may have been assembled in slave labour camps and could include conflict minerals like cobalt mined with child labour in the DRC. It’s certainly a question to ask of the scheme promotors. Many key materials are in short supply - finite resources - so prices will inevitably increase, probably well before the planned 7.3GW are installed.
What is the alternative to building solar farms in the countryside? We could make it a requirement for every new home to have solar panels. In 2021 178,000 new homes were completed. If we assume that 20% of them were flats and we could put 4kW of panels on the remaining 80% that would still create only 0.7GW. It would take 10 years to match the output from the planned solar farms and would have the same supply and ethics problems. Wind is probably the best alternative, although while it works best in a windy winter and is no use on a still summer’s day it takes up little land and interferes little with agriculture. The UK has 24.6GW installed capacity with about 60% on shore. If we increase the onshore installation it is more cost-effective than offshore, but there is scope for increasing both. I’ve heard it said that it takes over a year to get approval for an on-shore turbine but less than a month to erect it. Under present UK legislation a single objection is all that is necessary to refuse permission for a turbine. That must change.
One of the problems of energy policy is that it always seems to focus on supplying an ever-increasing demand, and not on managing that demand. Of course, with the move towards electric vehicles and heat pumps the demand is bound to rise, although electric cars are no panacea, and they are going to have similar resource problems to solar panels. There is already a chip shortage disrupting the car industry.
Is it in the national interest to support solar farms? Solar is complementary to wind and can often generate when wind won’t work and vice versa. A 50% uplift in solar capacity for 0.05% of agricultural land looks like a good deal, although that is a very financial outlook. We cannot ignore loss of amenity, but people must decide how much loss of amenity is worth when they are sitting in the cold and the dark on a cold winter evening. (Although solar energy wouldn’t change that, unless it can be stored.) My feeling is that we should approve only the largest solar farms and therefore limit the range of lost amenity. I believe there should be an equitable outcome for all concerned and compensation should reflect the fundamental difference between the loss of amenity and the loss of livelihood.
Given that renewable energy tends to be intermittent news this week from Scotland is very relevant. Sometimes there’s more than we need, sometimes it’s not there when we need it. The answer is storage, but what is the answer to storage? If you have the right geography and quite a lot of investment you could build a pumped hydro scheme. Some people have suggest a railway solution, with a heavy train being hauled up a special track with surplus energy and then driving generators as it descends when power is needed. Now Scottish company Gravitricity have developed a prototype which used excess electricity generated by solar arrays to power motors that hoisted a pair of 25-tonne weights on steel cables to the top of a tower. When the weights were allowed to drop (at a highly controlled rate), this converted the motors into generators that released electricity back into the grid. It’s been calculated that a full-size operation would cost £137 per MWh of storage, less than half the cost of lithium ion batteries and needing far less scarce materials. The next stage is to install the system over a disused mineshaft which could go more than a kilometre into the ground.
And that's where I'll leave it for the moment. This is a shorter episode than usual and contains only one topic but it has taken a considerable amount of time to track down the figures and the sources in order to make an assessment of how we should approach this issue of solar farms. You'll find all the references, as usual, on the Sustainable Futures Report website. Just a couple of thoughts before I go. I was doing a web search as part of my research for this article and looking for conflict minerals. The first result that came up said, “Shop for conflict minerals on Amazon - Top Deals on All conflict minerals.” I also found a guidance page from the UK government headed “Conflict Minerals. Encouraging British companies trading in minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo to be socially, economically and environmentally responsible.” Then it says, “This guidance was withdrawn on 21 September 2020.”
Spirit of the age, I suppose.
Future of Sustainable Futures
And that's it for another week. Before I go let me share my plans for the future of the Sustainable Futures Report. Next week’s Wednesday Interview will be about the Plasticology Project, fighting back against plastic pollution. The following week we’ll hear about Gaia Farming, and their milk substitute made from hemp. The next Friday edition will be on Friday 8th July. There will continue to be two editions per week until the end of the month, and then I’ll have a summer break for August.
From September the Sustainable Futures Report moves to Wednesdays only, with an interview one week and a general episode the next week. I hope you’ll keep listening.
Always open to feedback, because unless what I do is what you want to listen to there's not a lot of point. Please let me know if there are things you don't like or things I should do differently. Please let your friends know if there are things that you really like and that I should do more of.
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I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next week.
1 acre = 0.405 hectare
1 hectare = 2.47 acres
1,000 watts = 1 kilowatt kW
1,000kW = 1 megawatt MW
1,000MW = 1 gigawatt GW
1GW = 1,000,000,000W
Solar Farms/Solar fields
Agriculture in the UK 2020
Solar Photovoltaics Deployment (See Commentary page in this file)
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