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For solar to go big in the UK we first need to bust some myths

This post is by Gareth Simkins, senior communications adviser at Solar Energy UK.

Solar panels shut down in the heat. Birds and bats think they are water and fly into them. The industry needs new subsidies. People hate solar farms and they destroy habitats.

As senior communications adviser for the trade association Solar Energy UK, those are just a few of the well-worn myths that I have heard in the press, on social media and even in parliament lately.

Last month, the Telegraph blamed solar panels wilting in a heatwave for a coal-fired power station being reactivated. The story was published even after I provided them with technical data sheets showing that while photovoltaic performance does dip marginally in the heat, the long sunny days of summer compensates for this. Such myths were later spread on social media by the likes of Toby Young, Andrew Neil and DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

Fortunately, the BBC published a far more accurate story in response, confirming that the real reason was a grid connection to Norway failing, a nuclear power station being down for maintenance and increased demand for air conditioning.

Solar is the most popular source of energy among the public

Solar remains the most popular form of energy generation, according to the Government’s own Public Attitudes Tracker. A recent survey commissioned by our friends at RenewableUK found that investing in renewables was backed by 77 percent of respondents, even rising to 84 percent among Conservative voters in particular. This is more support than for any of Rishi Sunak’s ‘five pledges’ and clearly should make for sober reading for those who pressing to ‘ditch the green stuff’.

People living near solar farms back them to a far greater degree than most would think, according to new research published today. A survey of attitudes to solar power, produced by Copper Consultancy, found that 94 percent of people in the vicinity of an existing, proposed or under construction solar farm had either supportive or, at the very least, neutral attitudes to the sector. In fact, two fifths strongly supported the development of the sector, with only one percent strongly opposed, according to their findings.

But the survey found that people mistakenly think that there is limited local support for solar farms. Local residents tend to become more supportive over time. The fear of the new ultimately fades.

As Chris Hewett, Solar Energy UK’s chief executive, said: “It is clear that attacking solar farms is far from the vote winner some politicians might think it is, so Rishi Sunak’s administration is wise to be far more positive about solar farms than his predecessors. It is only a tiny, if vocal, minority that have given some politicians the impression that solar farms are unpopular”.

But myths are being perpetuated in parliament

Further myths were exercised during a recent parliamentary debate on planning and solar policy, in which Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson said, “Birds and bats that mistake glass for water can be killed when they land on the hot panels.”

The only shred of evidence for this that I could find related to concentrated solar power, an entirely different technology that uses reflected heat to drive a steam turbine, quite unlike photovoltaic technology.

“Worst of all, the presence of solar panels limits the potential for biodiversity due to the persistent shadow cast and the set channels created by rainwater run-off without proper dispersal,” she added.

A report that we published recently proves that concerns about perceived biodiversity loss are also unfounded. In conjunction with Lancaster University and consultancies Clarkson & Woods and Wychwood Biodiversity, we’ve shown that well designed and well maintained solar farms, for example using wildflower seed mixes, can make significant contributions to addressing the UK’s chronic loss of natural habitat.

An average of 25 species of bird were found across the 37 sites surveyed, including some red-listed ones such as linnets, yellowhammers and spotted flycatchers. Insects benefited from what can be a “significant resource” of nectar, says the report, with 32 species of butterflies and moth, 11 species of bee and various dragonflies, grasshoppers, wasps and beetles found among the sites.

Solar will play an important role in helping farmers to diversify from monoculture so that we can rewild vast swathes of the UK countryside.

The grid is the biggest issue

Copper Consultancy’s report reveals a further misconception: only seven percent of respondents understood that solar farms are located to ensure access to the electricity grid.

The UK’s electricity networks are often unable to accept large-scale connections without upgrades, Waiting times can extend for many years, even into the 2040s. Fortunately, the Government, Ofgem and the Energy Networks Association have acknowledged how much of a drag this is on the economy, lowering the cost of living and net zero.

But comments made by Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh during the recent parliamentary debate illustrate the cavernous knowledge gap that exists about grid issues and the competitiveness of solar technology, even among policymakers. He called for, “a new subsidy regime whereby if someone builds a massive warehouse, it is in their benefit to put a solar panel on top of it.”

The solar industry has neither the need nor desire for subsidies, which ended in 2019. In fact, more small-scale rooftop installations are expected this year than ever before, driven by the energy price crisis. It is solely the lack of grid connectivity that is holding back the commercial scale sector, as a UK Warehousing Association report underlined last year. The association concluded that the potential for warehouse roofs alone amounts to 15 gigawatts, which is double the UK’s current overall solar capacity.

So, if you hear someone repeating these misconceptions about solar power, even if it’s your local MP, we’re here to help with the facts.

This blog was originally published by the Green Alliance.