by Professor Peter Dobson OBE, Emeritus Professor of Engineering Science, University of Oxford
This Government is rushing through a policy of covering the countryside with solar panels in what are euphemistically called “solar farms”. It is misguided and foolish because these inefficient devices only work well in the UK in daylight and the summer months. The country is losing much- needed agricultural land as a result. It is ironic that our same Government is talking about increasing the use of land for both food production and biodiversity. For solar energy and indeed any form of renewable energy to be effective it has to include some form of energy storage and currently this is to be provided by very large Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS). Most of these are incorporating lithium ion batteries in large containers that have to be carefully monitored and temperature controlled. These could pose serious fire and health hazards so they should be sited well away from houses. Guidelines about fire safety for such BESS facilities were only recently issued and are not covered by Law: guidance produced by the National Fire Chiefs Council . This seems to have been kept out of the public awareness and were only mentioned in a revision of a document from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. This demonstrates, again the ill-planned rush by Government towards its flawed Net Zero policy.
So, if there is an urgency and need for solar energy, are there alternatives to siting the solar panels elsewhere instead of on agricultural land? Yes, of course there are and it is very surprising that more consideration has not been given to exploiting the largely unused rooftop spaces in the UK. Likewise, there are possibilities for covering car-parking areas with solar panels connected to local battery storage to provide for charging electric vehicles.
The benefits for everyone would be considerable: this suggestion does not use valuable agricultural land and will not despoil the countryside because the sites are already there in villages, towns and industrial estates. Land is going to assume increasing importance to reduce the amount of imported food, and the installation of solar panels on fields is not going to enhance biodiversity, and indeed may lead to long-lasting agricultural and ecological damage. Covering the beautiful and high-quality land in Cornwall is tantamount to vandalism being condoned by a Government that has not taken the trouble to analyse the situation strategically. At no point in the rush to Net Zero was there a proper cost analysis performed or consultation with the many experts.
Cornwall is blessed with more sunshine than much of the UK, and rooftop solar or “car-park solar” makes a lot of sense especially in supermarket and shopping areas, where that energy could be used for EV charging and other local purposes. The seasonal variation in solar energy also matches the tourism season when the demand for electrical power will be highest, especially as the adoption of electric cars becomes more established. By generating electrical power locally in the tourist season it will also reduce the need for extensive new cabling and large battery storage because this could make use of the existing power connectivity. There are also rooftop spaces in schools, public buildings and factories where the solar power could be usefully employed. This would reduce one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of solar energy, so it should appeal to investors, consumers and Government. In addition, this will add to the resilience of the National Grid if managed properly and be swifter to implement.
So, what is there not to like? Developers and the public will be much more supportive of such rooftop schemes and this will eliminate the considerable time wasted on public enquiries for the ruinous despoiling of our rural environment. These advantages need to be drawn to the attention of the Solar Taskforce. It would be desirable, indeed essential, to have a moratorium of all “solar farm” installations until the Solar Taskforce has deliberated.