Solar farms in East Anglia could start to hit similar challenges to those which have beset other key renewable energy sectors for the region - at the height of a global energy crisis.

Proposals which would tighten restrictions around where solar farms are built by excluding most farmland could pose a "serious threat" to the sector, a sector trade body has warned.

Rows over coastal infrastructure needed to bring offshore wind energy to shore are already hampering progress for the offshore sector.

Low carbon Sizewell C nuclear power station has been given the green light - but the road to planning success has also been slow and challenging.

Wind, solar and nuclear are seen as the main means by which the region - and the UK - can transition to net zero carbon energy sources.

During her short tenure as prime minister, South West Norfolk MP Liz Truss spoke out against solar farms - instead favouring limiting the use of solar panels to places such as factory rooves.  

The arrays aren't supposed to be built on "best and most versatile" (BMV) land - the most productive grade 1, 2 and 3a land.

Under her plan, grade 3b - or poorer - land would also be off-limits - making around 60% of land unavailable to projects.

The same approach could be adopted by her close friend and ally, Suffolk Coastal MP Thérèse Coffey, who is now environment secretary.

However, the government appears to be split on the issue with James Cartlidge, exchequer secretary, making clear the new government was "serious about delivering cheaper, cleaner and more secure power" and that it would include solar farms in future auctions for "contracts for difference".

The siting of solar farms is already strictly limited by the availability of suitable electricity grid connection points and planning concerns - including that they should be in areas where they are screened or less visible.

Renewable energy experts argue solar farms need to be part of the UK's energy future - and banning them from large swathes of poorer quality land would be a mistake.

Grades 1, 2 and 3b is the best farming land and generally considered unsuitable for arrays. Grade 4 and 5 land is the poorest land - but often found on hilltops and nature reserves.

Solar farms' detractors point to a loss of visual amenity - and of productive farmland at a volatile time when we should be producing more of our own food.

But their supporters say used in the right places - and properly screened - they are a major asset which is providing quiet - and clean - electricity.

They can help soils recover and can help farmers to diversify - providing them with a good, steady rental income at a time when their traditional farm subsidy - the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) - is being phased out.

Farming can also be energy-hungry, with crops such as vegetables often requiring irrigation - and a large amount of energy to pump water to the fields.

The other advantage of solar farms, say its supporters, is that they can be used to grow wild flower seed mixes to help biodiversity.

They can also be given other dual uses such as sheep grazing, points out Matt Rudling, who has worked in the electricity sector for more than 30 years - latterly with UK Power Networks. He now heads up Cell Energy, a solar farm developer based at Ketteringham, near Wymondham.

Solar farms usually come with a 30 or 40 year lifespan. After that, the farmland can return to what it was - but with the added bonus of lying fallow and having time to recover key nutrients. Screening hedgerow also provides permanent nature gains, he points out.

"There are lots of benefits - flower mixes can put diversity back into fields. It can also help where soil has been over-used and needs time to recover," he says.

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His company - which aims to secure permissions to enable others to develop sites - recently gained permission for a 43 MWp solar array on 160 acres between the villages of East and West Hanningfield south of Chelmsford, and for a separate 70-acre 20MWp site at Harwich. It is about to submit plans for another site near Huntingdon.

Support for the latest project is high - and there are no objections "because I think people generally recognise there's a need", he says.

A few years ago, projects were difficult because of "classic nimbyism", he says.

"What we are finding is people are generally a lot more accepting of them now."

He adds: "I think there is twice as much land used for golf courses at the moment than there is for solar farms."

The first thing his company will do when a farmer or landowner asks if their land is suitable is to check grid connections - and ensure the land is of lower quality or in a difficult corner to farm, he says.

"Farmers are generally people of the land - they are environmentalists anyway and they support the drive to net zero," he says.

But there is "a lot of politics" around solar, he admits, and it has to stack up financially.

"You have got really high energy prices but that means the cost of producing energy and the wholesale market is high at the moment so the demand for solar farms has gone up but the cost of building them has gone up - and the cost of borrowing."

He sees solar as another form of farming as it harvests the sunlight. But setting up a site costs millions of pounds and the return is over decades. Food production is also very important, he says, and solar is only a part of the renewable energy mix.

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"My view is there's room for all of this. You don't want to lose your best land but grade 3b is not your best land."

His fear is that the global energy crisis will continue - so action is needed on every front in order to reach carbon targets, he says.

"Build wind, build nuclear and build solar. I think there needs to be a blend, a balance between them."

According to figures from National Grid ESO, solar is now generating a respectable amount of the UK's electricity - despite being a relatively small player compared to wind and nuclear.

Its October 2022 figures show gas providing 36.0% of Britain's electricity, wind 36.2%, nuclear 14.2%, biomass 3.1%, coal 0.4%, solar 3.5%, imports 3.4%, hydro 2.3% and storage 0.9%. 

By comparison, in July 2022, gas was at 43.7%, wind 19.1%, nuclear 15.4%, biomass 5.9%, coal 1.7%, solar 7.3%, imports 4.6%, hydro 1.3% and storage 1.1%.

Just recently, Stansted airport gained permission to build a 14.3MW airport solar farm to the east of the site at High House Farm as part of its aim to make its operations net zero by 2038. It's just one of many projects across the region.

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Mark Sommerfeld, Head of Power and Flexibility at trade body the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), says the solar industry aims to work with - not against - the agricultural use of land and help provide farmers with additional revenue streams.

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If the government moves the goalposts, it would pose a "serious threat" to jobs and investment - and undermine the UK's drive to net zero, he warns.

“It is deeply frustrating that the government continues to cast doubt on the future of solar farms in the UK," he says.

"Currently, new solar projects are many times cheaper than the current price of electricity generated in gas-fired power stations. Yet the government’s current position is likely to deter investment in this crucial technology with hugely negative consequences."

He adds: "Delivering more solar projects is not only an environmental imperative, but an economic one too."

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