ECIU: Regulatory Hurdles for Ground-Mounted Solar Farms May Cost Bill Payers Upto £5bn a year
New findings indicate that limiting the growth of ground-based solar projects could incur annual costs of up to £5bn, hitting UK households with an extra £180 annually by reinforcing dependence on imported gas.
Today, a fresh Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) analysis rings the alarm bell: impending restrictions on ground-mounted solar farms could deal a heavy blow to the pockets of energy consumers to the tune of £5 billion per annum. Why? Because it exacerbates the UK's dependence on expensive, imported fossil gas.
As per the government's ambitious 70GW solar energy target analysis, an estimated 24GW to 39GW will likely emanate from ground-based installations in England alone. This is notably more substantial than the 7GW to 22GW expected from rooftop solar systems.
But wait, there's a plot twist. Proposed tweaks to the existing Energy Bill could severely handicap the growth of solar farms. These proposed changes come on the heels of prior efforts by the Truss administration last autumn, which—if implemented—would have nigh-on outlawed solar farms across most of England's agricultural landscape.
After the Truss administration crumbled, Rishi Sunak and the team seemed less inclined towards these restrictions. However, a newly proposed amendment in the forthcoming Energy Bill—known as clause 48—does subtly instruct planning officials to curb the spread of solar farms. The clause calls for an end to "large-scale solar plants on best and most versatile land," urging instead for incentives to ramp up rooftop and brownfield solar projects.
Solar industry leaders are scratching their heads; solar farms rarely occupy premium agricultural land. Furthermore, these farms consume significantly less space compared to other non-agricultural activities. Golf courses, anyone?
The big concern? Even if proposed solar farms occupy marginal land, they could face regulatory roadblocks, thanks to the proposed guidelines.
ECIU's dire financial forecast: Should these amendments go through, annual energy bills may skyrocket by £3bn to £5bn, leaving nearly 6.5 million homes beholden to pricier, imported gas.
On the flip side, the ECIU contends that a more progressive solar strategy—encompassing rooftop and ground-based installations—could translate into a whopping £9 billion in annual savings for energy consumers compared to gas-generated electricity.
Moreover, the data suggests that farmland-based solar could bring savings of £100 to £180 per household per year. Over the long haul, this could accumulate to an astounding £4,500 per household from 2024 to 2050. Although, the report concedes that these projections are contingent on fluctuating power prices.
It's worth noting that a paltry 0.5% to 0.7% of English farmland would suffice to meet the government's solar capacity goals. Tom Lancaster, an ECIU land analyst, argues that given solar's cost-efficiency, hampering its expansion is akin to biting the hand that feeds you—fiscally and environmentally.
"Solar farms not only require an infinitesimal fraction of arable land but also boost the UK's energy security and contribute to biodiversity," Lancaster said. He emphasized that solar farms could also become havens for wildlife and even allow for dual land use, including livestock grazing.
"Restricting solar farms is counterproductive and stifles growth in the rural economy, especially when farmers are looking to diversify their income streams due to volatile market conditions," he added.
Public opinion echoes this sentiment. Recent ECIU research reveals that over two-thirds of British voters back the UK's net-zero by 2050 initiative. Furthermore, a YouGov poll found an overwhelming 80% of Britons have a favourable opinion of solar energy.
And yet, a disconnect exists between public sentiment and political perception; nearly one-third of MPs believe their constituents are less supportive of solar energy than they are.
Let's not forget: Farmlands already host bioenergy crops on over 120,000 hectares without any constraints. This is double the land needed to achieve the solar targets by 2035 and a staggering 15 times the land currently hosting ground-mounted solar installations.
This report coincides with emerging news that the government is mulling over proposals to lift the unofficial ban on new onshore wind farms.
The mounting evidence suggests that restrictive policies on ground-mounted solar farms could have far-reaching consequences—not just for our energy bills but for the future of sustainable energy in the UK.