Is 'Solar Farming' the Way Forward?
Sometimes a local issue comes along which serves to make my brain hurt very badly as it raises so many others and I simply don't have the answers. The news last week that a Chippenham farmer nearby is proposing to convert 35 acres of his land to solar panels falls firmly into this category. That's 'solar farming' on the scale of around 15,000 moveable panels, each the size of a door and arranged in rows in a field(s) to maximise their capture of the sun's energy.
There was quite a lot of talk about it on Saturday at our local resident's association quiz evening which NAH and I attended*. We're now expecting a 'call for action' email any day now and naturally the main point of concern raised so far is what this means from an aesthetics viewpoint.
That's the least of my concerns and I'm having a major tussle with myself over whether this is a good thing or not. My greener living head says it is because it means we're making more use of a renewable energy, but my we as a nation need to grow more of our own food head is rather concerned about another way in which our farmland is being taken out of cultivation.
I can also appreciate the farmer's viewpoint. If I was he and I found a scheme which pays for itself in about ten years and then offers a guaranteed income for 15 years way above what I could get from conventional farming, I'd be giving it some serious thought too.
But then I'm sure the last government didn't quite have 'solar farming' on this scale in mind when they set up the Feed in Tariff scheme to help them meet their 2020 carbon emission reduction targets. This is chiefly designed to encourage home owners and small businesses to set up solar panels on their roofs: indeed I've been trying to persuade NAH that we should do so. The reports I've found so far in places like the Daily Mail and by The Energy Conservation Group aren't in agreement on if and how long the larger field sized schemes will be allowed to continue.
What seems to be clear is that any legislation plugging this loophole won't be applied retrospectively, so we can expect lots more planning applications by farmers for solar panels in England over the next year or so. I wonder how much of our farmland will be taken out of production as a result.
I also wonder how the land will be managed over the 25 year life-cycle of this scheme. The local farmland in question is currently used for grazing, but I don't think animals will be allowed to coexist alongside the panels. If not, how is the vegetation going to be kept in check all that time so it doesn't block the sun? I can't see the land being co-managed for wildlife either. And what happens to all the paraphernalia when the land is restored back to how it is now? Does this give us net good or bad benefits (environmental or otherwise) over the life-cycle?
As usual with these things I have more questions than answers and I see there's a public meeting arranged about this issue next month. Perhaps I'll get some answers then?
* = which we won - hurrah!
NB Having no picture to hand of what massed banks of solar panels in a field look like (though this link to the article about this issue in my local paper gives you fair idea), I've used a photo courtesy of David Moniaux via Wikimedia.
Update 7th Feb 2011: The government have announced today a review of the FIT scheme as it isn't designed for solar farms such as the one I've discussed. More details here.