Following this week's announcement and news story that Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss did not want to see farmland "wasted and its appearance blighted by solar farms", the NFU has emphasised that land can indeed be multifunctional, yielding an agricultural benefit as well as producing energy.
As expected, Defra has now decided that land parcels which contain arrays of solar panels will be considered ineligible for Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) support under the reformed Common Agricultural Policy from January 2015. The NFU had previously proposed that the presence of grazing livestock could be evidence that the land is available for agriculture. In previous years, we provided guidance to members on eligibility of land and claiming SPS for solar farms, as some farmers have been able to do. In other cases, we believe farmers have elected not to claim SPS, or have entered into solar farm agreements that render themselves unable to claim SPS, since the land is no longer “at their disposal”.
NFU chief renewable energy adviser Dr Jonathan Scurlock said: "This announcement represents a further loss of flexibility for farmers and growers in enabling them to comply with and indeed potentially enhance the new CAP greening measures. However, the withdrawal of Basic Payment will make very little difference to the growth of solar energy in Britain, since the level of income from sale of electricity or market rents for solar farms is much higher. Ground-mounted solar is already very close to becoming competitive without any government support."
Dr Scurlock added, "It is a shame that this has turned into a food versus energy debate about land use, especially when energy production, food production and biodiversity in solar farms most certainly can co-exist. The NFU has worked closely with the solar industry, government and other stakeholders to develop good practice guidance for both agricultural use and biodiversity in solar farms."
N.B. Government support for solar farms over 5 megawatts under the Renewables Obligation will end in March 2015, but larger solar farms will continue to be supported by DECC under the Contracts for Difference scheme. Planning Practice Guidance (July 2013) from the Department for Communities and Local Government states "if a proposal does involve greenfield land [it should allow for] continued agricultural use and/or encourage biodiversity improvements around arrays". The NFU is pleased that DCLG is also presently consulting on Permitted Development rights for larger solar roofs up to one megawatt.