Last month, Brendan Clarke-Smith MP for Bassetlaw posted a video on Twitter with the opening “absolutely the best news we’ve been waiting for”. Had a plan for a new hospital been approved in Worksop in his constituency? Had a new factory been announced on the outskirts of Retford, creating a few hundred new jobs? No, a proposal for a new solar farm had been withdrawn and the land was “going to stay beautiful”. I grew up in a village near the site of the proposed solar farm, so I was surprised to hear that this muddy field was regarded as “beautiful”, when Sherwood Forest is just a short trip away.
The ‘red wall’ MP thanked Prime Minister Liz Truss for her “comments on solar farms” during the Tory leadership election when she referred to them as “paraphernalia,” and for pledging “we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms”. It has since been reported in The Guardian that there is an internal battle going on in the government, between Number 10 and the business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who considers banning farmers from giving over land to solar as “unconservative”.
Solar farms occupy a tiny amount of land
The past six months has seen plenty of opportunities for Green Alliance to herald the benefits of solar energy. It is said that new environment secretary Ranil Jayawardena and Liz Truss want to ban solar panels on farmland, rather than trust farmers to make the right decision for their business. If there was one thing Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss agreed on in the leadership election it was this. There is scant evidence that putting solar panels on farmland has any significant impact on food production. The reality is that solar takes up just 0.1 per cent of land in the UK. Even government plans to expand solar are expected to result in just 0.3 per cent of land being used.
How does this compare with other land uses? According to Green Alliance analysis, crops produced for biofuels take up 77 per cent more land than solar farms. If the government really wants to bolster food production, then finally putting an end to what Green Alliance’s policy director Dustin Benton calls a “zombie policy” of feeding crops to cars should be the first place the government should look. This could free enough land to feed up to 3.5 million people. Rather than decarbonising transport with biofuels, instead we need to speed up the switch to electric vehicles and push for an ambitious zero emissions vehicle mandate to put more clean cars on the road.
It’s nine times cheaper than gas
We have reminded everyone that renewables are now nine times cheaper than gas, thanks to Carbon Brief’s number crunching. Since the price of gas has soared to record levels, accelerating the rollout of solar and supporting households and businesses to install panels should be front and centre of the government’s energy policy. Unfortunately, it still isn’t.
It’s not just that solar is cheap, it’s also a huge generator of good jobs. One positive you can say about the UK economy right now, and there aren’t many, is that we have high employment with just 3.5 per cent of people unemployed. But many of these jobs are poorly paid and insecure. As Green Alliance’s Sam Alvis and the pollster Rachel Wolf have written, people want “good jobs driven by purpose, that are fit for the future”. Fortunately, as we revealed in our report Powering the labour market, solar energy supports the creation of five times more secure jobs per megawatt of energy than gas generation. Four fifths of these jobs are highly skilled as well. If the UK is going to take advantage of these new jobs, a more ambitious approach to green skills is needed.
So, what’s holding the UK back from being a solar champion? Could it be that Brendan Clarke-Smith is right and people don’t like them?
Most people want solar power
Polling by Public First for Green Alliance recently found that almost three quarters of those surveyed supported solar energy. Even when it’s in their neighbourhood, they’re in favour, with 70 per cent supportive of solar energy being built locally. And those living in rural areas supported solar just as much as those in cities. As Possible and Greenpeace have pointed out, renewables like solar and wind are as popular as pizza. It appears that whether it is in their backyard or someone else’s, most people want more solar everywhere.
Among the small section of people opposed to solar it’s largely on the grounds that panels are “unattractive”. Of course, it is right that local people should have full say over how land around them is used, so communities should be involved in decisions. We’ll keep shouting from the happily solar installed rooftops that cheap energy from sunshine is the way to go.