Apple trees crowded out by solar PV?

UK Environment Secretary Liz Truss spoke of her dislike of solar PV installations in fields. In an interview last week with the Mail on Sunday, she said ‘They are ugly, a blight on the countryside, and …. are pushing production of meat and other traditional British produce overseas.’

She went on

‘I’m not against them per se – they’re fine on commercial roofs and school roofs – but it’s a big problem if we are using land that can be used to grow crops, fruit and vegetables. We import two-thirds of our apples, and using more land for solar panels makes it harder to improve that’

As far as I know, the argument that supermarket apples come from New Zealand because of the shortage of land caused by solar PV in the UK is a new one. A quick look at the numbers doesn’t support her conclusion.

Is solar crowding out agricultural use of UK land?

  • The UK now has about 5 gigawatts of solar PV
  • About 40%, or around 2 gigawatts, is mounted on the ground.
  • Some of these solar farms are on disused land such as old airfields or abandoned clay pits.
  • No more than about 1.5 gigawatts is on agricultural land on which crops are grown or animals graze.
  • These PV farms occupy a total of about 3,000 hectares, or around 2 hectares per megawatt.
  • About 17.2m hectares are used for agriculture of some form in the UK
  • Ground mounted panels therefore use about 0.02% of all agricultural land in the UK.

Specifically, is apple growing in decline because of solar PV?

  • Orchards currently occupy about 23,000 hectares in the UK, about seven times the land used for solar PV.
  • This number is the same as in 2013
  • And is up about 15% from 20,000 hectares five years ago.
  • So the rapid growth in solar PV has had no effect whatsoever on the land used for orchards.
  • This is unsurprising. Almost all large PV farms on agricultural land are sited in areas normally used for the grazing of livestock not growing fruit.
  • Two farmers I have spoken to say that PV improves the health, lamb survival and weight growth of sheep because the panels provide shelter from wind, rain, sun, snow and birds of prey while not significantly affecting grass growth.