UK government’s solar farm clampdown based on ‘politics not evidence’

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The UK Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) was informed by the CAP Direct Payments Team that solar farms do not have a “serious” impact on the UK’s agricultural output ahead of its controversial decision to remove CAP payments for solar farms.

A freedom of information (FOI) request filed by PV Tech's sister title Solar Power Portal reveals that the CAP Direct Payments Team told Defra in September 2014 that: “Given the small areas of land covered [by solar farms] currently, it is not possible to argue that, at the national level, there is yet a serious impact on agricultural output.”

However just one month later, environment secretary Elizabeth Truss proclaimed that her department was removing CAP payments for solar farms because she did not want to see English farmland’s “productive potential wasted and its appearance blighted by solar farms”.

Truss continued: “Farming is what our farms are for and it is what keeps our landscape beautiful. I am committed to food production in this country and it makes my heart sink to see row upon row of solar panels where once there was a field of wheat or grassland for livestock to graze. That is why I am scrapping farming subsidies for solar fields. Solar panels are best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south-facing commercial rooftops where they will not compromise the success of our agricultural industry.”

The CAP, the EU's Common Agriculture Policy, distributes funding across all member states.

In August 2014, a note from the UK's CAP Direct Payments Team reveals that the motivation to remove CAP payments for solar farms derived from ministers. The note reads: “Ministers expressed a desire to exclude ground based solar from receiving agricultural subsidies under BPS [Basic Payment Scheme].”

A further email from a Defra member of staff suggests that the decision to scrap CAP payments was motivated by the need to preserve budgets, rather than the protection of food production as per Truss’ claims. The email from a member of Defra staff, whose identity was redacted, reads: “Whilst we are uncomfortable about double funding, the rationale for the change in policy is around focussing shrinking CAP funds to support farmers who want to farm”.

In addition, further Defra email correspondence acknowledges that “any use of agricultural land for renewable energy production is currently politically sensitive”.

The FOI request reveals that Defra received extensive data from the National Farmers Union and AEE Renewables which reinforced the point that solar farms did not take agricultural land out of production.

At the time of the announcement, the solar industry reacted furiously to Truss’ ascertation that solar farms were hampering agricultural production – something that Defra staff appeared to preempt. In a discussion about potential issues that might be raised in regards to solar and other land uses, one email warned that solar compares much more favourably to other land uses. The email reads: “Biomass crops may still receive BPS as on cultivatable [Sic] land and they require ten times (?) the land area of solar for equivalent energy.

“Planning policy pressure for housing is leading to permanent rather than temporary loss of high grade farmland. Might these be seen as more significant to food production and future food security than solar?”

Reacting to the revelations, Leonie Greene, head of external affairs at the UK's Solar Trade Association said: “The information that has been brought to light by this FOI shows that this was not a decision made on the basis of evidence, but rather on politics. Our best practice guidance and case studies show that solar farms do not have to be and are not in conflict with food production, and yet the government chose to ignore all this work and unilaterally decide that the grazing land around and under the panels is not agricultural land. You only have to visit a solar farm in person to see that isn’t true – and we would be happy to arrange such a visit for Environment Secretary Liz Truss, but we have so far been told that she unfortunately does not have the time.”

Greene continued: “The industry has shown that, done responsibly, solar does not set food up in conflict with fuel. Defra could do a lot more to disseminate good practice, in the interests of clean energy, biodiversity, the climate and farmers facing increasing weather risk to their livelihoods.”

A Defra spokesperson told Solar Power Portal: “The government believes that the country’s highest quality land should be used for food and crop production. That is why we have taken the decision to remove Common Agricultural Policy payment from land used to generate energy through solar panels. This further protects our land, farmers and food security through redistributing payments to those farming the land and who are committed to agriculture.”

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday in October 2014, which was published before the official announcement from Defra, Truss said that her department was cutting CAP payments for solar farms because: “they [solar farms] are ugly, a blight on the countryside, and villages are pushing production of meat and other traditional British produce overseas.

“Food and farming is our number one manufacturing industry, the whole food chain represents £100 billion in our economy, and it is a real problem if we are using productive agricultural land for solar farms,” Truss said.

“I’m not against them per se – they’re fine on commercial roofs and school roofs – but it’s a big problem if we are using land that can be used to grow crops, fruit and vegetables. We import two-thirds of our apples, and using more land for solar panels makes it harder to improve that.”

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