Land used for renewable energy projects is expected to double over the next two decades as the business cases for solar, wind and bioenergy align with the agricultural industry’s aspirations to become net zero by 2040.
The NFU’s Achieving Net Zero report, released earlier this month, said boosting renewable energy and the bioeconomy to displace greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil fuels could deliver estimated GHG savings of up to 26 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
Emissions from UK farms presently amount to 45.6MtCO2e/year – about one-tenth of UK GHG emissions.
But it is not just farming’s ability to produce green energy and store carbon which is of benefit to the environment and wider goals around climate change.
Jonathan Scurlock, NFU chief adviser for renewable energy and climate change, said the technologies were ‘multi-purpose’, with enhanced biodiversity being a key benefit, alongside food production.
Mr Scurlock said: “Solar is an obvious example where sheep can graze around the array, providing a cost-effective management tool with just some manual spot weeding as and when required, or free range poultry can run under the light and shade. We have also seen instances where silage can be cut.
“At the same time, you are providing a habitat for wildlife, with some sites offering nectar and pollen mixtures, and cover and feed for birds.
“This is not about taking land away from agriculture and putting it into energy production. It is demonstrable already that land which is being used for diversification into renewable energy is genuinely multi-purpose, delivering food, energy and provision of ecosystem services.”
It came as a study by the Solar Trade Association (STA) found well-designed and well-managed solar sites support wildlife habitats and ‘meaningfully contribute to achieving national biodiversity targets’.
‘The Natural Capital of Solar’ report author Nicholas Gall said: “Wildlife and plant species face profound threats today which are compounded by climate change.
“The STA is determined to promote best practice in the development and management of solar parks so that our industry helps to turn around prospects for nature while slashing millions of tonnes of carbon emissions.
“This report shows that, when real care is taken, solar farms can deliver tremendous benefits for wildlife, pollinators and even sustainable food production.”
Mr Scurlock added that even without Government subsidy, he estimated the numbers of solar projects would spike in the next few years.
He said: “The Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) was useful for the business case but now the FiT is no longer there, if you are using more than half of the electricity you generate from a small ground mounted system or a roof top array then you are probably seeing a return of 10 per cent, so it stacks up even without Government support.”
And he highlighted the non-energy benefits of other technologies such as energy crops and wind turbines.
“If you are growing some bioenergy crops you are offering new habitat for small mammals, insects and nesting birds – new habitat that might not be there if it was just an annual rotation.
"Many energy crops like willow and miscanthus are planted and then left undisturbed until it is harvested.
“I have also seen arable fields with wind turbines in the middle of them, providing pollinator services to other crops.”