Summon into your mind, for a moment, the image of a deeply perplexed Ed Davey, late at night, deep in thought, sitting there behind his Secretary of State’s desk in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, staring down at a single large number in a memo from his Permanent Secretary.

Strictly confidential – for the Secretary of State


As requested, we’ve researched three options to provide  7% of total UK electricity demand by 2025 at the latest:

1. A barrage on the Severn Estuary
2. 2 new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset
3. 20 GW of renewable electricity generation capacity on UK farms

As it happens, Secretary of State, the choice is actually a bit of a no-brainer, apart from two little stumbling points that I’ll come to in a minute.

For the time being, let’s immediately dismiss Option 1 for the time being. Too many uncertainties, very high cost, and the bird brigade really don’t like it.

Regarding Option 2, we already know that those two reactors (at c. £24 billion) would be the most expensive power stations anywhere in the world – were they ever to be built.

As you know, Secretary of State, recent news means that now looks increasingly unlikely. The main construction company involved (AREVA) is in a ‘financial crisis’. Even parts of the nuclear industry think the chosen reactor design is ‘UNCONSTRUCTABLE’. And I’m afraid it gets worse: we’ve known for some time that the Treasury is carrying out a secret review of the whole deal. It’s a bleak outlook.

Which brings us to Option 3 – and this really is the no-brainer!

A brilliant new piece of research from Forum for the Future, Farmers Weekly and Nottingham Trent University has analysed the potential for rolling out different renewable technologies on UK farms – principally solar and wind, with a bit of anaerobic digestion thrown in for good measure.

Based on experience to date (there are already more pioneers out there than you might imagine!), their report estimates that it would be relatively simple to get the first 20 GW onto the grid from farm-based solar and wind. And that could be on stream by 2020 if we get behind it, well before the projected date of 2023 for completion at Hinkley Point – if you believe that!

The National Farmers Union loves it – and you can’t say that very often! It’s true, of course, that wind has fallen out of favour with your coalition partners, who are competing furiously with UKIP to see who can more effectively trash our wind industry while simultaneously hammering the rural economy.

Despite the media and political spin, the majority of Brits like wind power. But solar power is really very popular. Not just on roofs (farmhouses and farm buildings have lots of roofs pointing in the right direction, or so I’m told!), but mounted on the ground.

So let’s look at solar more closely. If these ground-mounted solar farms are designed in the right way (to minimise visual intrusion through screening with trees and so on), on the right bits of land (the 14GW of solar in the overall total of 20 GW of renewables would require no more than 21,000 hectares, or just 0.5% of the land area of UK farms), with local communities consulted and involved at every turn, this would be an absolute winner.

I’ve got some wonderful photos to show you, Secretary of State, of sheep grazing happily amongst the solar panels (and chickens too, come to that!), and some even more beautiful images of panels in amongst restored wildflower meadows, with bees and butterflies all over the place. It turns out that bumblebees just love making their nests in the ground sheltered by the panels!

What, as they say, Secretary of State, is not to like?!

Two things, unfortunately, as I mentioned above.

  1. Your fellow Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss, threw a bit of a hissy fit about farmers needing to stick to the business of food production, and not getting involved in energy production. It turns out that she hadn’t seen any of the beautiful photos I’ve referred to above, and seriously thought that ground-mounted solar arrays carpeted the entire land area! (I blame her ignorance on Defra’s Permanent Secretary personally!)And this is unfortunate, because even she has belatedly woken up to the importance of protecting pollinating insects, with lots of enthusiastic discussions going on between her department and National Rail and the Highways Agency. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realise that farm-based solar could be a great way of helping all those bees – which we probably want to be close to the crops anyway, I would have thought?
  2.  We’ve pretty much put all our low-carbon eggs into EDF’s all-encompassing nuclear basket – to the tune of £24 billion! I’m sorry to have to tell you, Secretary of State, that there’s no way of saving face here; you’re already an object of scorn for some environmentalists (I think I showed you that blog from bloody Jonathon Porritt!), and if you now flip back again, having so assertively flopped into the nuclear camp, many people (even outside the Treasury) might start to question your judgement.

However, I don’t think we need panic here. The Hinkley Point deal with EDF probably won’t come unstuck until after the next General Election, and in the meantime, you have a wonderful opportunity to buff up your residual green credentials by pressing the start button on Farm Power UK right now.

We’re talking 7% after all!!

This article also appeared in The Ecologist.

Related links:

• Farm Power: Putting agriculture on the grid – project page
• What role could – and should – farms play in a sustainable energy system? – a blog post by Iain Watt
• “Wind turbines on farms can help UK meet food and energy needs” – Nicky Conway talks to BBC News