For the most part, the Sunak government has made pains to distance itself from the car-crash of Liz Truss’ time in charge. In one area, however, they have proven peculiarly loyal to the Truss agenda – the push to reclassify agricultural land, which risks effectively banning solar panels from 41% of land in the UK.
This idea is economically illiterate for a number of reasons, most obviously that it will encourage inefficient land use. When left to the free market, the decision between the use of farmland for solar or agriculture comes down to which option provides the farmer with greater return. By removing this choice, there will be instances where farmers are forced into inefficient allocation of their resources, as they will not have the option to use the farmland for solar when suitable.
Following the implementation of windfall tax on all UK energy producers, there is already a disincentive to invest in the UK’s energy sector. This would only be compounded by the implementation of this policy, which was already estimated to threaten £20bn of private sector investment, corresponding to 30GW of green energy.
The consequences of this are broader than just the financial impact. It was estimated by Carbon Brief that 5GW of new domestic energy supply could allow the Government to cut UK gas imports by 2%. When adjusted to 30GW the UK could, therefore, cut gas imports by 12%. This would be a significant step to improving energy security and shielding the UK economy from future shocks.
Previous governments have recognised the role that solar will need to play in achieving a fully decarbonised power sector by 2035, with a target to increase solar five-fold to 70 GW. Solar is fast to build and is now nine times cheaper than gas, although that is slightly exaggerated by government meddling. To achieve their targets and protect future generations, the Government should be encouraging solar investment, not adding red tape.
So why is Sunak’s Government reviving this policy? The official line used by the Truss government was that it would protect the UK’s food security. But, if you define food as raw ingredients – not just food processed in the UK – we import 80% of it. What’s more, it is estimated that even if solar is scaled up in line with the Government’s net zero target, it would still only cover 0.3% of the UK’s land area, or 0.5% of farmland, less than the amount of land used for golf courses. It seems improbable that scaling up solar is going to have any real impact on food security.
More to the point, solar panels and food production are not mutually exclusive. They can be used simultaneously to create ‘agrivoltaic systems’ – where the shade provided by the panels can be used to create a kind of microclimate. That means lower water requirements due to protection from evaporation, helping protect farmland from its biggest threat – climate change. Such systems have seen great success in Japan where there are nearly 2,000 of them growing more than 120 different types of crops.
So why else would the Tories decide to ‘effectively ban’ solar panels across much of the British farmland?
The problem is that a lot of the public find them unsightly: particularly older people, who are more likely to vote and more importantly to Tory MPs, more likely to vote Conservative. So, as so often, it really boils down to politics trumping economics. But in the long run, how pleased will pensioners be if they can’t heat their homes because energy supply was curtailed in the name of hanging on to some fields?
As with solar, so elsewhere: the Conservatives should stop pandering to the short-term interests of particular groups and focus on policies that will leave the whole country better off.
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