A research student at Moulton College (UK) is collecting data from farmers and solar farm operators to determine whether solar farms are an efficient use of land and what impact they have on the agricultural sector.
“The study is designed to elucidate the effects of large-scale, ground-mounted solar PV on the productivity and output of UK agriculture at local, regional and national scales,” says Alex Laws, who is conducting the study.
What motivated the study
The research student explains that climate change targets for reduction of carbon emissions have led to significant investment in the deployment of renewable technologies globally, and that this expansion has been partly curbed in the UK by political disharmony, levels of social acceptance and, more recently, curtailment of fiscal stimulus.
“Solar farms represent diversification of revenue for a farming industry burdened with falling food prices, rising input costs, risk of disease, extreme weather events and burgeoning legislation,” Laws says. “At the same time, solar farms help us move towards a decarbonized, decentralized energy economy and potentially improve conditions locally for biodiversity by taking land out of intense management practices.”
On the other side of the debate the detractors argue that solar farms take land out of production and jeopardize food security. “I am interested in establishing greater scientific certainty around the sustainability of solar farms,” Laws says. “They already contribute significantly to our energy mix, and the increasing feasibility of electricity storage may lead to greater investment in the future.”
At this stage, he is hoping to accomplish two key aims: “Firstly, I want to qualify and quantify the impacts of solar farms on rural businesses from a farming perspective. In other words how are they managed and how effective are these practices? Secondly, I want to help establish some circularity between existing research and the planning process.”
The researchers argues that a better understanding of the possibilities and limitations of solar farms will help local authorities, investors and landowners make informed decisions about the development of solar farms.
Synergy between large scale solar farms and agriculture
For photovoltaic technologies to be viable at northerly latitudes — such as in the UK — either a steep gradient or generous spacing between rows of panels are needed. Laws explains that most of the uplands in the UK are part of designated National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which are under statutory protection and planning restrictions are tough. About the lowland UK landscape, Laws emphazises that it offers the advantages of easier screening to maintain aesthetic integrity, easier access for construction and maintenance, higher levels of solar irradiance and greater local demand for energy from a densely populated region. “The average low azimuth of the sun requires panels to be well spaced and this provides opportunities for the land under the panels,” he notes. “Micro-climatic conditions permit the continued use of much of the land for grazing, hay and silage production, wildflower meadows or even arable crops.”
Laws even points out that the shade of the solar panels may also provide shelter for grazing livestock and heterogeneous soil conditions for invertebrate diversity. Attracting pollinating insects with native flowering seed mixes can provide direct benefits to neighboring cereal, legume and fruit crops, and wider benefits for connected habitats and species at a landscape scale.
He goes on to explain that over 70% of the UK landmass is in agricultural production, so the ecosystems are heavily influenced, and sometimes defined, by farming practices. “Any change in land management will have an effect on ecosystem function, negative and/or positive,” Laws says. “I believe solar farms can and will present opportunities to better our natural environment if they are managed correctly.”
To offer perspective, Laws notes that this is only the dawn of renewable energy in the UK, adding that the first solar farm was commissioned in 2011, and the vast majority of projects are less than three years old. “If we invest resources in wildlife monitoring schemes now, we can ensure that future development makes the most of the potential benefits, which in turn will promote the sustainability of solar farms to planners and the public alike,” he urges.
“I would like the data collection process to be indefinite and fluid, but for the purposes of my project I will be analyzing data as soon as it reaches critical mass,” Laws reveals. He hopes this data analysis will then lead to a journal publication and inform the next steps. “There is the potential to conduct some field studies on a specific taxonomic group, and I am in the process of exploring this avenue of research,” he adds. “One of the intended outputs desired by our funding partners is a set of guidelines for solar farm operators to maximize the environmental benefits of their installations. This should be informed by the results of my study, other existing research outputs and advice from statutory bodies and NGOs.”
He concludes that existing guidance is largely generic and based on agri-environmental policies evolved from the EU Common Agricultural Policy. He projects that the recent EU referendum result will inevitably lead to changes in greening measures, both statutory and voluntary. “Measures will need to be targeted effectively using scientific evidence and specific to land use. What works for a dairy farm will not necessarily work for a solar farm.”
Link to survey
The Farming the Solar Farm Survey is open to anyone directly involved in the management of a solar farm.
Written by Sandra Henderson, Research Editor, Solar Novus Today,