Land use and solar farms

Land use and solar farms

In 1978 I was fortunate to receive a Churchill Fellowship which enabled me to travel to Japan to study land use. Forty-three years later, it is gratifying to see the recommendations I made for a national land use policy being reflected in the recently published National Food Strategy.

"Land suited to high-yield farming must be protected, and one important element is land being lost to solar farms." - Michael Alder, Fellow

I start with the premise that land is finite and therefore we must use it wisely. When land use changes there are trade-offs. Sometimes these are acceptable and sometimes not.

In England between 2009 and 2019, 300,000 hectares of agricultural land was lost, and current estimates are that in the UK overall we are losing 40,000 hectares per year. We produce 60% of all our food and therefore import 40%. Growing populations and flattening of crop yields means that, by 2030, we could well be importing 50% of our food. There is an assumption by many that this is not an issue, we can simply import food. However, we already know how fragile our food supply chains are and climate change will not only adversely affect food production within the UK but also from the countries that export to us. Food security is therefore vital and will be secured by maintaining as much land for food production as possible.

It is clear that land use in the UK has to change. The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee has stated that 21% of land in England needs to change function to forestry, energy crops, peatlands or agroforestry. At the same time, it is true that much of the land that is best suited to nature conservation and carbon removal produces little food, so this trade-off is good.

Land suited to high-yield farming must be protected, and one important element is land being lost to solar farms. There are several mega-schemes being put forward of over 1,000 acres and nearly 300 smaller schemes in the planning process in England and Wales. Our need for renewable energy is undeniable and most people accept this will largely be achieved by off-shore wind. Solar can play a part - though it is not that efficient, with figures of 11-15% being generally accepted as the conversion of solar energy to usable energy. There are many suitable locations for solar panels, including commercial roof space, housing or some of the 7 million hectares of poorer-grade land. Solar farms on quality land, or sites of environmental importance, is not a good trade-off. Such sites would provide examples of the wrong schemes in the wrong places.

There are other issues with solar farms, not least the probable negative impact on biodiversity. We simply do not know the long term impact of solar farms on the ecology of a region. There is little empirical data on the subject, but what we do have is negative. Finally, larger solar farms have battery units to store electricity which can then be released on to the grid at times of high demand. There is a huge potential risk of fire and explosion from these lithium- ion batteries. It is a hazard that developers do not appear to take seriously.

So these are the issues I have been dealing with and their significance is obvious – it is about feeding the nation and looking after our biodiversity and landscape.

What I am doing is trying to encourage a national debate on land use, with particular reference to solar farms. I have been in touch with politicians and planners. In addition, I have been advising many groups throughout the country opposing local solar farms and I have engaged with the media.

The next steps are simple – keep going. This is not a problem that will go away. In 1978 I wrote: “In the UK, conflict between land uses continues to worsen and the rate of loss of agricultural land continues to increase. The present planning system does not seem able to cope with the threat. This report urges for a system of national land use planning for the UK”. Perhaps we might get there.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.