COP26 saw many countries pledge to take steps toward decarbonisation and, whether or not these commitments go far enough, it’s clear that the ‘green revolution’ is beginning to take shape and there is a real opportunity for solar to drive the energy transition.
During COP26 the UK government committed to phasing out coal power by 2024 and driving renewable power generation forward with a decarbonised power system by 2035 – which provides renewable technology with an opportunity to lead the way for net zero.
Solar is a big part of this, and the sector is currently experiencing significant growth. Solar Energy UK published a report earlier this year that outlined how an additional 40GW of solar capacity can be unlocked by 2030, which alongside the substantial reduction in cost – reportedly by 90% in the last ten years – makes solar a really attractive option once again. This, coupled with increased public support and widespread agreement by the industry and government that solar should be a primary energy source, has ensured that investors view solar as a relatively safe, long-term investment and created a very stable market.
This in turn provides farms and estates with great opportunities. During the lockdown, we saw an increase in landowners looking for financial opportunities outside of their usual agricultural uses and agents and developers were proactively looking for large-scale 200+ acre plots with access to the electricity grid.
As we continue emerging from the pandemic and drive towards net-zero, solar is a tried and tested energy source with a robust framework already in place for farmers and landowners to take advantage of. There has been a resurgence in funding, due to the stability of the market and cost-effective pricing, so now is a great time to explore the possibility of using solar as a diversification model.
However, to maximise the opportunities available to the agricultural industry, we still need to work on deconflicting some common misconceptions surrounding the viability and effectiveness of solar energy sources in the UK. This includes the government working with the industry to safeguard agricultural use classification for landowners looking to take advantage of solar farming and remove the fear around removing land from the agricultural cycle and other biodiversity challenges.
It is also clear that the industry requires better alignment with the planning system to create transparent policy guidance in order to help the project pipeline reach the construction phase – and ultimately achieve connection. This will ensure that viable projects have sufficient access to grid connections and are appropriately accelerated through the planning process to reach the country’s net-zero and general power demands.
However, despite these challenges, solar can work in synergy with the agricultural cycle (by incorporating exciting biodiversity plans into new projects), new technology (such as double-sided panels and advances in battery storage technologies) and work in tandem with other environmental policies, including the push towards electric vehicles (EV). Through the introduction of solar-powered EV charging forecourts and the collocation of solar projects and battery storage sites, enables load-shifting and maximises the natural energy sources making their way through the grid. It also enables certain sites, which would have previously been considered unviable, to become primed for renewable development.
There are huge opportunities for the on-farm renewables sector, accelerated by the green agenda and promises made at COP26. If we can address a number of agricultural and planning policies to ensure that farms and landowners benefit from the implementation of solar technology – and are not penalised for its use – then it’s a fantastic method for the agriculture industry to drive the energy transition, reach net-zero targets and diversify operations for long term sustainability.