January 25, 2013

Food Production Fears Over Devon Solar Farms

BBC Devon report today that:

A countryside group has raised concerns about Devon farmland being taken out of food production for solar farms.

The "countryside group" the BBC is referring to is in fact The Campaign to Protect Rural England. According to the BBC, Penny Mills from the CPRE has said that:

Farmland should be producing food, that's traditionally what it's done and the concern is this is so large… where is this going to stop? We should be supporting local producers. We need food and we have a growing population.

The BBC has solicited the views of other interested parties, and they also reveal that Dr Jonathan Scurlock, chief policy advisor on renewable energy for the National Farmer's Union believes that:

Solar is very efficient in terms of the amount of energy that can be produced.  Most solar farms are on low-grade land and can bring a modest income to the farmer.

I'm not a member of the CPRE or the NFU, but as luck would have it I am a member of RegenSW, which according to the BBC is "an independent centre of expertise in renewable energy". In that capacity I would dispute the NFU's assertion that "solar is very efficient", and have indeed presented arguments to the effect that such "modest income" generators should not be constructed on Devon's "prime agricultural land" to Teignbridge District Council planners on a number of occasions. The BBC has also sought the views of Merlin Hyman, chief executive of RegenSW, who told them that:

Prime agricultural land should not be used, in our opinion, and we have issued best practice guidance to councils. But there shouldn't be a conflict between fuel and farming and I'd be surprised if planning permission would be granted on prime land.

The BBC also talked to Dave Timms from Friends of the Earth, who said that:

We would be concerned if solar farms were pushing out prime agricultural land but there's no real need for it to happen. There are enough roofs on houses, factories, local authority buildings and enough brown-field sites and waste land.

The views of all these experts does rather raise the question of why solar photovoltaic "power stations" are being constructed on farmland in the first place, rather than on  "roofs, brown-field sites and waste land".  If developing such things on anything other than "low-grade land" is a bad idea, then why are developers still applying for planning permission to build them on prime agricultural land? Possibly a partial answer to that question was given to the BBC by Rob Denman from TGC Renewables, "which is building several solar farms in Devon",  who said that:

To get planning permission we only submit applications for low yield agricultural land otherwise the planner generally turns it down. Depending on a variety of factors, farmers could earn an average of £800 per acre per annum.

Mr. Denman didn't reveal to the BBC how much developers of solar PV "farms" like TGC, or investors in such developments, expect to be able to earn per acre per annum on average. Personally I can't help but think that the way all these numbers stack up won't lead to every planning application around the nation to build large scale solar parks on prime portions of  Britain's "green and pleasant land" being suddenly withdrawn, although at least Lightsource RE have recently withdrawn their application to erect a solar park at Bowhay Farm on grade 2 agricultural land.

I also can't help but wonder why the likes of Friends of the Earth and The Campaign to Protect Rural England didn't join me on the list of objectors to the nearby Fulford Solar Park, and in view of all the expert opinions recently expressed to the BBC, why the planning inspector who ultimately rejected that proposal didn't quote "pushing out prime agricultural land" as a reason for so doing. I also wonder why the BBC doesn't appear to have sought the views of the aforementioned list of objectors.

Filed under Renewables by

Comments on Food Production Fears Over Devon Solar Farms »

January 27, 2013

Kasia @ 12:38 am

Very good questions. Why?

January 29, 2013

Jim @ 1:53 pm

A very good question Kasia! I phoned BBC Devon to ask them my final question. They haven't got back to me with an answer to that one yet. However they did inform me that the online story is based on Radio Devon's top story last Friday, entitled "Food or Fuel?".

If you so desire you can still listen to that show for the next 3 days at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/p0135lxp

In addition it seems there was some debate over on Facebook, which I have a sudden urge to contribute to!

http://www.facebook.com/goodmorningdevon

then scroll down a bit.

Kasia @ 2:33 pm

Jim, thank you for the info.

January 30, 2013

Jim @ 7:10 pm

The BBC haven't got back to me yet. "In a management meeting" this afternoon apparently.

However Dr. Jonathan Scurlock from the NFU has. He told me he broadly agreed with the views expressed by Dave Timms of Friends of the Earth, although it was very dependent on which part of the country was under consideration. In Lincolnshire, for example, much of the county consists of grade 2 land or better. In those circumstances putting solar panels on a small area of the least productive parts of a farm was justified.

I then asked him about his "Solar is very efficient" quote, and what sort of "efficiency" he was referring to. After all the "capacity factor" of solar PV is a lot less than that of wind turbines, for example. Jonathan explained that in his interview with the BBC he was referring to "MW/acre". Particularly when you take into account a 500 metre "exclusion zone" around a wind farm, that number is better for solar than for wind.

I pointed out that if all those acres are capable of growing cereals, then using "megawatts per acre of absent cereals" as a metric instead makes wind look a whole lot more desirable than solar PV.

Jonathan then brought up the subject of biofuels, suggesting that on lower quality land miscanthus could be grown under wind turbines. That prompted me to ask him about the NFU's view on so called "biochar", and the possibility of using agricultural land for carbon sequestration. He said he was following research into that subject with interest. However given that the carbon price in Europe is currently at its lowest level ever, it made more "economic sense" to use charcoal in other ways, and to sequester carbon by liquifying carbon dioxide where it is generated.

To my way of thinking that is in fact "economic nonsense". In circumstances where global carbon dioxide emissions are still rising fast, the Arctic is warming far faster than the rest of the planet, and as a consequence agriculture in the UK and elsewhere is getting more difficult with each passing year, it's clear evidence that carbon is mispriced. However that discussion will have to wait for another day!

Leave a Comment

Fields marked by an asterisk (*) are required.

Subscribe without commenting