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Farmers will find their place in the sun by investing in solar farming

Panoramic of a solar farm at dawn taken from the air

Selecting the right location means solar farms can generate income, improve biodiversity, and boost farms’ green credentials explains Pieter D’haen, development manager at power firm SSE Energy Solutions.

Travelling through the countryside, it’s easy to see how rural businesses have contributed to the fight against climate change. 

Those existing wind turbines, anaerobic digesters, and other devices dotted across the landscape will become even more important as the UK stretches to reach its net-zero targets by electrifying transport and heat. 

However, many farmers who are still looking for ways to decarbonise while generating new income have turned to solar panels as they have high potential and multiple benefits. Here are some things to consider when thinking about solar developments. 

Where can solar panels be installed? 

Picking the right location is key as there are certain considerations to take into account. It’s tempting to think that securing planning permission will be enough, but what about a grid connection to sell power from the solar farm into the wider electricity network? Sites must be within good proximity of a grid connection point – if there’s a substation nearby then that’s normally a good indication that connections could be available.

When it comes to the land itself then there are some obvious considerations that will minimise concerns at the planning stage. Look for flat land that faces south, which isn’t prone to flooding, and which is classed as agricultural grade three or four. 

As for the size of land, companies tend to prefer working with sites of at least 100 acres. Flexibility is key – developers change over time, so it’s worth carrying out research beforehand to make sure a variety of partners could be interested in working with the site.

What are the costs and return on investment?  

As a source of additional income, farmers can consider renting out a location to a solar developer. The easiest way is to rent each acre at a set price. Roughly, landowners could expect to receive income of between £750-£1,200 per acre per year. A medium-sized solar farm is around 200 acres, so that’s an annual income of around £200,000. The lifespan of solar panels has increased in recent years, so these days it’s typical to enter into a 40-year agreement to lease land, with a possibility to upgrade as the technology is updated. 

A more sophisticated option is for a landowner to take a percentage of the revenue generated from selling electricity to the grid. This option exposes landowners to the ups and downs of the electricity market though – while energy prices are climbing at the moment, there’s no guarantee that they’ll continue to rise.

What are the benefits? 

Solar panels are much more efficient than they used to be. In the past ten years, they have essentially doubled their capacity while maintaining their size, which means farmers who previously rejected the investment due to high costs might now be able to revisit the idea as the return on their investment is likely to be greater.

One of the best aspects of a solar farm is that the land can also continue to be used for other purposes. Grazing sheep – but not cattle – around solar arrays helps to keep vegetation trimmed back. Additionally, there is a benefit to biodiversity from having solar farms: according to a CIRIA study, farms with control plots had 10 plant species compared to 25 species in solar farms. This is especially relevant as the UK Environment Act 2021 now requires farms to demonstrate a biodiversity net gain in their activities. 

Aligning with global commitments to beating climate change is high on the agricultural community’s agenda, and farmers are keen to find new ways to reduce their environmental impact and comply with increasingly tight regulations. Solar is a technology that’s come on leaps and bounds – it’s low cost, reliable and has minimal impact on landscapes or communities. Amid all the changes to countryside payments, solar could contribute to diversified income streams for farms, estates, and other businesses – solar’s prospects appear bright.

Pieter D’haen is development manager at power firm SSE Energy Solutions

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