Where Western countries get their energy from was already shooting up our list of political priorities in 2022, and war breaking out in eastern Europe has only accelerated that trend. With governments desperate to cut themselves off from Russian oil and gas as quickly as possible, and under pressure to reach their ambitious net-zero targets, the debate around renewable sources of energy such as solar power has never been higher up the political agenda.
And yet, the real-life consequences of what it means to rush into renewables does not get the airtime it deserves. In the UK, we are seeing an epidemic of perfectly usable farmland being handed over to renewable energy companies in order to create enormous ‘solar farms’. If local authorities wave through the planning applications, acres and acres of land are set to be covered in solar panels and the British farming sector will be squeezed tighter than it can bear as a result.
Take, for instance, Hampshire. In that county alone, a whopping 3,500 acres has been the subject of new planning applications for solar farms since the start of 2020, across 28 different sites. One such site, a proposed 200-acre solar farm by Enso Energy in six fields on land near Silchester’s Church Lane Farm and Bramley’s Vyne Lodge Farm in Hampshire, is equivalent to 140 football pitches. If planning permission is granted by the twelve members of Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council’s Development Control Committee, it would become the fifth largest solar farm in England and the largest in England on agricultural land.
We must think very carefully before blindly endorsing a hurried march into solar energy, for various reasons. For a start, the technology simply is not ready yet for Britain to make the switch to renewable energy. The government’s target is to get all of the UK’s energy entirely from renewable sources by 2035 – even that has been widely criticised as wildly over-optimistic.
Even if we assume the UK will hit these 2035 target, that still leaves us with over a decade where we will rely on fossil fuels to heat our homes. The UK is already suffering a huge cost-of-living crisis, with struggling families left in the awful position of having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children. Against that backdrop, it is a very poor decision to risk artificially making the cost of electricity for households on the breadline even higher still, just so we can have a few more solar panels on British land.
Moreover, before the panels are even installed, there are other enormous environmental problems to keep in mind. For the most part, solar panels are manufactured in China and then shipped to Britain. China has much less regard for reaching net-zero emissions than we do in the West – in fact, they are building more coal mines as we speak, and using that power to produce our solar panels. It is ironic in the extreme that our misguided attempt to be more environmentally friendly in Britain could have a net negative impact on climate change, because we are pouring money into the coffers of the Chinese government, which is then investing in fossil fuels.
Plus, much of the motivation to wean ourselves off oil and gas comes from the need to distance ourselves from Russia because of the way it has conducted itself on the world stage. But is China much better? There is an ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, basic human rights are being trounced in Hong Kong and threats are made to Taiwan on almost a daily basis. When we consider the long-term geopolitical implications, after decoupling itself from Russia at great cost, is it wise for Britain to then transfer its energy needs to China?
As well-intentioned as the drive to ramp up solar power in Britain might be, it has not been properly thought through and there is a danger that very large solar farms will continue being approved under the radar, with little consideration given to the costs. Instead, it is imperative that Britain thinks carefully about its energy needs and plans for the long term, incorporating renewables only in a sensible and sustainable way.