It is good news that the UK should have plenty of sunshine this summer – potentially more than much of southern Europe. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts suggests that June, July and August should each be hotter than average. This should be a great opportunity to harness more solar power: the bad news is the country seems powerless to exploit it.
In the four years 2017-2020 only four major solar farm projects were refused. Then came the premiership of Liz Truss. As Environment Secretary in 2014 she had described solar farms as “a blight on the landscape” and on becoming Prime Minister imposed an immediate ban, claiming that farmers should be producing food with crops and livestock “not filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms.” Between January 2021 and August 2022 permission was denied for 23 major solar installations across England, Scotland and Wales, enough to power nearly 150,000 homes annually. Dustin Benton, Policy Director at Green Alliance, said: “This additional solar power generation would have saved over £100m per year in wholesale energy costs. By integrating solar panels into fields, even farmers on high-grade land can continue to grow crops at the same time as enjoying the steady income from solar panels.”
Meanwhile the European Union has continued to set the pace. In 2021 member states installed around 25.9 GW of new solar capacity, an increase of 34% over the 19.3 GW the year before, with the top five EU producers of solar power being Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and France.
SolarPower Europe’s annual progress report, just published, confirms that EU capacity continues to accelerate, with an increase of 47% over 2021 – enough to power a further 12 million homes. Chief Executive Officer Walburga Hemetsberger commented: “European solar shows no signs of slowing down. Our average prediction for 2023 is 53.6 GW more solar power in the EU – this ‘most-likely’ pathway takes us to at least 85 GW of new solar per year by 2026. This means the EU solar market is set to more than double within four years and reach 484 GW by 2026.”
The largest solar plant in Europe was built back in 2019 at Nunez de Balboa in Spain, with a capacity of 300 megawatts servicing more than 250,000 homes with electricity. Italy started even earlier with a 70 megawatts plant in Veneto. Germany however remains way out in front, with its largest solar park in Brandenburg alone producing at least 180 gigawatts annually. By comparison, the 469 small solar farms sprinkled across the UK have a combined total output of only 12 gigawatts per year.
Portugal has just become a EU leader with construction of Europe’s largest solar plant, and the fifth largest worldwide. The site is at Santiago do Cacém near Sines, in the Setúbal district. According to its owners Iberdrola it will also “improve eco-stability and boost crop yields”. Sheep would be able to graze at the same location, and beehives would also be introduced. This confirms that biodiversity and environmental protection have no need to be compromised. Someone could usefully have told Liz Truss.
UK Conservative Councils in particular also need to get the message: these were the authorities in the south-west and east of England responsible for the most recent refusals. But local communities have to get up to speed themselves as well. A farmer in Warwickshire, who a few years earlier had tried to make his smallholding profitable by participating in genetically-modified crop trials – until they were flattened by local protesters – recently proposed to fill a field with solar panels. Locals immediately plastered the roadside with placards saying: “fields are for crops not solar”. He gave up.
Individual UK property owners are playing their part, with some 13,000 additional homes installing rooftop panels every month. But that is still only around 4% of households and alongside wind-power will never be enough on their own to meet the UK’s declared target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. There needs to be a major change of mindset amongst local communities as well as Government and there is maybe one way to promote it.
In recent months Just Stop Oil protesters have chosen to disrupt national sporting events and even Chelsea flower show to draw attention to their cause. Their campaign is completely counter-productive, in that is in danger of turning people off the Green agenda they are trying to promote. It is also increasingly pointless because no Government can suddenly stop using oil: with the best of intentions it will still take time, and the slower that renewables take off the longer that time will be.
Just Stop Oil campaigners could speed up the move away from oil by protesting positively in favour of more solar farms. Their current negative anti-social activity is just a waste of energy.