Up to £20bn of investment in renewable energy is under threat from Liz Truss’s plans to effectively ban solar farms on agricultural land in England, the industry has warned.
The prime minister, who is a longstanding critic of solar panels installed on farmland, is expected to approve measures that would dramatically curb the rollout of the fast-growing technology, despite reservations from both the Treasury and the business department.
“If the plan were implemented it would threaten 30GW plus of projects currently being scoped for the second half of the decade — this could be over £20bn of capital investment into the UK energy sector,” said Chris Hewitt, chief executive of the industry trade body Solar Energy UK.
Solar developers warned the technical change would amount to an effective block on large projects by banning the technology from 58 per cent of agricultural land and 41 per cent of England’s land mass.
During her successful bid to become Tory leader over the summer, Truss said agricultural land should be yielding “fantastic produce” from livestock or crops and “shouldn’t be full of solar panels”.
Ranil Jayawardena, the environment secretary, has asked officials to extend the definition of “best and most versatile” land (BMV) to include the agricultural land that most solar farms are built on, the Guardian first reported.
Farm land is classified based on soil quality, climate and topography using a system ranking from 1 to 5. Under Jayawardena’s plan, BMV — currently made up of category 1 to 3a — would be extended to include grade 3b. Planning guidance aims to protect all land designated as BMV from development.
The majority of solar farms are built on 3b, which is defined as of “moderate quality agricultural land” and is therefore less productive for farmers but still flat enough for solar panel installations. Lower categories of land tend be in upland areas.
Solar, including rooftop arrays, currently accounts for about 4 per cent of Britain’s electricity generation. But Truss’s predecessor Boris Johnson had said he wanted a fivefold increase in solar deployment by 2035, from 14GW at present, as he sought to bolster domestic energy supplies in the wake of Russia’s full blown invasion of Ukraine.
Officials in both the Treasury and the business department are concerned that the proposals would slow down the efforts to boost domestic energy production, according to two Whitehall officials.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government wanted to improve both energy security and food security. “In September [Truss] said she doesn’t think we should be putting solar panels on productive agricultural land, as well as the energy security issue we face a food security issue.”
Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned renewable energy group — which has more than 20 solar farms in the UK — said the proposed changes were “incredibly worrying”.
David Flood, managing director of Statkraft’s UK business, said it was “wrong to present solar as a risk to food security”, adding: “The most productive land is already protected by planning rules, which are effective.”
Zoisa North-Bond, chief executive of Octopus Energy Generation, said: “Solar farms cover less than 0.1 per cent of UK land and take up less space than golf courses do. Solar is also one of the cheapest forms of energy — generated within our own borders — and it can help us become energy independent and bring down energy bills quickly.”
Ed Miliband, shadow climate secretary, said: “The blame for this plan lies squarely with the prime minister, who has repeatedly opposed solar energy, the cheapest, cleanest, quickest form of power.”
While Truss is opposed to solar farms, she recently announced plans to lift a de facto moratorium on onshore wind farms in England, imposed by former prime minister David Cameron more than half a decade ago.