The Benefits of Solar Farms
The whole world is undergoing an enormous and rapid change in the way it gets its energy, moving away from burning fossil fuels to cleaner, renewable sources such as wind and solar. While climate change is the main driver, political and economic instability in the gas and oil markets are also becoming important factors.
We make the case here for solar farms as an important part of the UK’s future energy mix.
The sun is always shining on somebody somewhere in the world. Just step outside on a sunny day and feel the warmth of the sun on your face.
Totally free of charge!
What about coal, oil and gas? They’ve served us well for two hundred years
Humans cannot depend on fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) in the long-term as they:
- Give off greenhouse gases which are changing the earth’s climate, leading to all sorts of long-term problems for humans and nature
- Are highly polluting, which is damaging to human health and nature
- Are becoming too expensive, meaning more and more people simply cannot afford them, leading to what’s known as fuel poverty
- There is a finite amount that is usable, meaning they will inevitably become increasingly expensive
In short, fossil fuels have had their day. In the UK and globally.
What are the alternatives to fossil fuels?
The most obvious alternative sources of energy that do not give off greenhouse gases are:
- Renewable (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, wave and tidal)
While we can perhaps use nuclear as part of our future energy mix, we cannot rely on it as a replacement for fossil fuels. This is because existing nuclear power stations are nearing the end of their useful lives and new ones take a very long time to build, are hugely expensive and present significant risks. We still don’t have a good way of safely dealing with nuclear waste.
Hydrogen gives off only water when burned and can be used as a direct replacement for most fossil fuel uses. The big problem with hydrogen is there isn’t enough that’s easy to get at and naturally occurring on earth to meet our needs, meaning we’ll have to make it. Hydrogen can be made from water but doing so takes a lot of energy, which we’d either have to get from burning fossil fuels, which we don’t want to do, or from renewables. Using hydrogen, therefore, could meet some of our energy needs but only if we also fully commit to renewables like wind, solar and the rest.
Renewables can be used for most things we currently use fossil fuels for and are endlessly available – the wind always blows somewhere, the sun shines, rivers flow, beneath Earth’s crust is hot hot hot, waves continue to crash on beaches and not even Canute could hold back the tide.
Haven’t you forgotten biomass?
Biomass means stuff that grows or waste from stuff that grows, such as trees, animal manure and food waste, all of which can be burned or converted to bio-gas using anaerobic digestion and can then be burned to generate energy. It is considered a renewable because other living things can grow to replace what has been used. It is not included in the main list of renewables here though because, unlike the others, biomass gives off greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. Biomass, therefore, is only ever likely to be a partial fix to the UK energy mix problem.
Making ‘new’ biomass will re-absorb the carbon release in burning the previous material, but this takes time – think how long it takes to grow an oak tree – and the amount of new planting may be less than before.
Why can’t we rely on offshore wind farms?
Surely most of us are now used to seeing film footage of enormous wind turbines slowly and majestically turning somewhere in the Irish Sea or off the east coasts of England and Scotland. Wind farms are now big business and turbines are very efficient at converting wind into electricity, so why do we need solar at all?
The simple answer is that the UK Government has set targets for onshore and offshore wind capacity in be installed by 2030 and 2050. These targets, together with some existing nuclear capacity, do not meet the likely total UK electricity demand. We will therefore need to continue to burn gas to make up the shortfall or turn to other renewable sources such as solar. It therefore makes sense to increase energy generation from all renewable sources, rather than putting all our eggs in the offshore wind basket.
In addition, offshore wind farms aren’t in the best location to provide electricity to all parts of the UK. This means a lot of investment in the national grid to keep the power flowing for these parts, whereas solar can be much closer to where the energy is used and needs much less investment.
Why must electricity be generated near to where it is used?
The National Grid has been designed to carry electricity from power stations to where it is used. Changing where we generate our electricity from in-shore power stations to large offshore wind farms bringing their power ashore at a small number of places will place impossible loads on the National Grid, meaning we will have to redesign it at great cost to consumers. Using electricity close to where it is generated, as is possible with solar farms and rooftop solar, means much less re-design work for the National Grid and, therefore, far less cost to the consumer.
It is inevitable that local renewable generation and local consumption, possibly linked to local tariff arrangements, will form part of the UK electricity landscape in the future.
I hear that solar farms are not efficient, so why would we build them?
Efficiency is an important consideration only if you are dealing with a limited resource. However, wind and solar are free and readily available, whereas gas and petrol have to be found, mined, refined and transported – think of North Sea oil rigs, fracking operations, oil tankers, gas pipes and petrol station – meaning their efficiency is much less than it may appear.
Plus, of course, wind and solar don’t give off greenhouse gases or pollutants, whereas gas and petrol when burned are both big emitters of greenhouse gases and pollutants.
On one day last year it has been reported that 78% of the UK’s electricity came from offshore wind. Are you sure we need solar farms too?
True, the UK is particularly well positioned for wind power and it is an important part of our energy mix.
However there are 365 days in the year and sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. In addition, electricity from offshore wind requires expensive connections to the grid, whereas local solar farms can, in principle, be connected to users at a lower cost.
Is it true that land cannot be returned to agriculture at the end of the lifetime of a solar farm?
No, this is just not true.
A solar farm leaves no permanent effect on land. It can be removed in a few days and the site reverted back to whatever use it previously had or an alternative. In a couple of years it would be impossible to tell that a solar farm had ever been there. While it is in place, the soil also has a chance to improve its own micro-structures and fauna as it is not being used for intensive agriculture.
This is not the case with a power station – think about all the ‘brown field’ sites that we have to spend money on in order to clean up and re-use.
Grazing sheep and bee-keeping are token gestures aren’t they?
No, this is not ‘tokenism’. During the life time of the solar farm, the land could, for example, be used for livestock grazing or bee-keeping, both of which can generate additional income for the land owner. The presence of bees and other pollinators is a good sign that biodiversity is improving. Or the land could simply be left to lie fallow or managed to encourage wild flowers to grow and invigorating nature.
All of these possible uses, without pesticide or fertiliser application, will allow the soil to improve and flora and fauna to flourish, increasing the biodiversity and health of the ecosystem.
I have heard that solar panels contain lead and that this can enter the environment – is this true?
Like all electronic apparatus (including the device you are reading this on), solar panels and control systems contain lead (in the solder used to make electrical connections) and other rare metals.
These cannot leave the device when in use, but the equipment must be disposed of properly at the end of its use, either by re-use elsewhere or by proper re-cycling. The elements that can be recovered are of value (many are scarce) so there is a strong financial as well as legislative imperative to recover these. Given that these installations may have lifetimes of 30 or 40 years, the need for this recovery will increase into the future. Already, the scrap value of ‘old’ consumer electronics from your local recycling centre has increased several-fold.
We need our best land to be productive. 60% of our food is imported – is this environmentally sustainable?
Land is being taken out of cultivation at a rate of almost 100,000 acres per annum. At the same time yields are declining as is land quality due to the effect of global warming. So, production potential is already diminished. Surely we cannot afford to lose further parcels of arable land to development that has no need to be there?
Shouldn’t development be limited to brownfield and poorer quality unproductive land?
These points raise a number of issues:
1. Food security is important to the UK. However, economics, consumer habits and expectations are one of the major drivers of the level of imports, not the proportion of land used in the UK. For instance, it is not possible to grow a significant amount of rice in the UK; should we therefore cease to import this valuable food and require those groups for which it is a major part of their diet to revert to a UK-grown alternative? Should we only be allowed access to food ‘in season’ in the UK? Should we be compelled to ‘buy British’ for meat, when the costs are beyond the means of many people?
2. It is for the landowner to decide how he manages and uses his or her land, as it is for a home-owner to decide who lives in his or her house. Many traditional forms of agriculture do not allow for sustainable businesses (broiler sheds are often the only other economic option available to a land owner). We should be asking “why do landowners look to solar farms and other schemes as the only viable business for their land?”
3. Agricultural practice and consumer demand will change – the availability of best and most versatile (BMV) land may be more than enough if alternative crop varieties and new forms of growing (hydroponics etc) become commonplace.
4. Issues around soil fertility relate to agricultural practice, not to the presence or absence of solar farms. Moving to the ‘next field’ once the fertility of this field has been exhausted is a matter of land management.
The idea that good land is somehow ‘poorly used’ if it has a solar farm temporarily sited on it is not the whole story – the reason for this are far more complex . The land used for a solar farm can quickly and completely return to farming use if needed and a solar farm may represent the only economic option for the landowner to keep their livelihood.