Solar Madness

14 mins. to read
Solar Madness

Anguish In Wiltshire

Let’s save the planet by destroying our green and pleasant land and worsening our already lamentable food insecurity. As John McEnroe used to say in the heyday of Wimbledon in the 1970s: You cannot be serious!

A solar array covering 2,118 acres (that’s 857 hectares or three and a half square miles) of the glorious North Wiltshire countryside, rich in wildlife, is to be erected on prime agricultural land. Unless it can be stopped by local opposition, the proposed Lime Down Solar Park (park?) will wound the landscape in a triangle between the market towns of Malmesbury, Tetbury and Chippenham. It will dominate the pleasant villages of Hullavington, Norton, Sherston, Rodbourne, Alderton, Stanton St. Quintin and Grittleton – some of which are cited in the Domesday Book (1086). The site straddles the Fosse Way, an ancient drove road now favoured by hikers. It also borders a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.

The array of three metre high solar panels will be surrounded by security fencing and floodlighting. The array will require transmission stations and other infrastructure across a wider area so as to connect it to the national grid via a substation at Melksham. Outsize battery storage units, which are highly combustible, will be erected on the site. If approved, the array will generate 500 megawatts of electricity per annum – that is enough to power 115,000 homes.

And this is only one of several solar “parks” (arrays) under consideration in parts of rural Britain. Another 2,000 acre array is proposed on the estate of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire. Lime Down (a totally made-up name, by the way) is being driven by Island Green Power, an Irish company which is chaired the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. No doubt it will generate a few jobs for local people, but that number will be far outweighed by the likely loss of jobs in the local hospitality sector, not to mention farming.

The farmland under threat in Wiltshire is classified as Grade 3B by agronomists – so, not the most fertile, but suitable for growing cereals and grazing dairy cattle with reasonable yields. Currently, under DEFRA planning rules, solar arrays are not permitted on Grade 1-3A land. But the land in question, according to the writer and agronomist Jamie Blackett, has the capacity to produce the equivalent of 12 million loaves of bread and ten million litres of milk per year. If the project goes ahead then the agricultural produce foregone will have to be imported from abroad, possibly from countries where environmental and animal welfare standards are less rigorous than our own.

Moreover, as Jamie Blackett has pointed out, as the world’s population grows agricultural land in developing countries will be obtained by chopping down rain forests or ploughing up virgin habitats – thus contributing to CO2 emission and thereby to global warming. So, the objective of reducing emissions by generating all our power from renewables turns out to be self-defeating.

The development of the Lime Down array will have a devastating effect on biodiversity in the county. Many bird species rely on insect-rich pastures. Ground-nesting birds need open areas in which to incubate their young. Barn owls would be unable to hunt by night because of the light pollution.

Of the ten largest solar arrays in England, eight are already in Wiltshire. But the final say-so will be made not by Wiltshire County Council but in Whitehall by Claire Coutinho MP, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. Her department, in a policy statement issued in January, describes the development of infrastructure for renewable energy as “a critical national priority”. This means that the Secretary of State would normally grant consent for such a project, even though the local MP, James Gray, is against it.

On Wednesday (3 April), a petition with 8,000 signatures opposing the project was submitted to the minister. The consultation period on the project will end on 26 April and a firm decision is likely to be forthcoming immediately thereafter.

More Than Just NIMBY-ism

There will be those reading this who will describe my opposition to this project and others like it as “NIMBY-ism” (as in not-in-my-backyard), even though I don’t live in Wiltshire. We must bite the bullet, they will say, and roll out more solar and wind turbine arrays if we are to have any chance of hitting the government’s target of decarbonising the national grid by 2035 (indeed by 2030 if and when Labour comes to power). Renewables are the future, they will say, so let’s get on with it. The problem is that schemes such as Lime Down will not reduce global CO2 emissions on a net-net basis.

Firstly, most of the solar panels installed will have been manufactured in China where about 60 percent of the grid is accounted for by coal-powered energy plants. Those panels will have a significant carbon footprint of their own – and will have to be transported to and within the UK on ships and trucks that are powered by hydrocarbons. Lime Down will have an estimated economic life of 40 years. After that, those panels will either have to be replaced – or we can imagine that the site might be given over to housing.

Secondly, why do arrays have to be built on agricultural land? Every new-build home should be required to have a solar panel on its roof. Ditto for light industrial buildings such as Amazon’s many fulfilment centres. And why couldn’t land along railway lines and motorways be used to accommodate those panels?

Thirdly, there are other sources of renewable energy apart from solar and wind. Arla, the cooperative owned by British dairy farmers, reckons that with 1.2 million tonnes of cow slurry available every year, it could generate enough power in its biodigesters to power about four percent of British homes.

Fourthly, as the science writer Matt (Lord) Ridley wrote this week, green pasture is already a solar farm which transforms sunlight into food and which stores carbon in the soil. When solar panels catch the sunshine they deprive the soil below, with negative consequences for insects and birds and indeed the soil itself. He quotes the climate scientist Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power, to the effect that solar power needs around 200 times as much land as gas per unit of energy. And materials required by solar power (silicon, silver and copper, much of which is produced in China) are about six times greater than for gas per megawatt of capacity. That means that even if we were to cover the entire country in solar panels we would still struggle to produce the power equivalent to that generated by gas power plants.

In any case, solar arrays are useless at night and in winter when the days are short. In Britain, solar output peaks at precisely the moment we least need it – in the middle of the day in the middle of summer. And it stops just when demand starts to peak on a winter’s evening. If we were to rely on solar power, we would have to spend many billions of pounds to install enough batteries to see us through a single winter’s night.

Matt Ridley points out that Britain is up there with New Zealand for wheat yields per hectare. Our combination of soil moisture and summer day length is ideal for growing cereals. But we are at the bottom of the league for solar power. Just 1-2 kilowatt hours per day of direct normal irradiance falls on the average square metre of solar panel in Britain. Yet much of Australia receives 5-8 times as much. It is not even clear if the energy generated by a typical solar farm north of the Alps in Europe is greater than that expended when building it. Some of us knew that in Britain, even at the height of summer, the sun does not always shine strongly. But apparently not the politicians.

Solar power enthusiasts point out that the cost of solar panels has been falling precipitously. This week the Financial Times reported that solar panels are now so cheap that some users in the Netherlands and Germany are using them as fence panels. Apparently, they still generate electricity even if they are not precisely aligned with the sun; and the installation costs are lower than for roof-mounted solar panels.

Prices have fallen because Chinese producers have generated a glut. Chinese photovoltaic (PV) panel manufacturers are discounting prices in order to dispose of excess stock. But the cost of building a solar array is much more than the cost of the panels. About three quarters of the total cost, according to Matt Ridley is associated with acquiring the land and the infrastructure required to connect the array to the grid.

The Chinese glut has had a knock-on effect in Europe. The European Solar Manufacturing Council warned in February that Europe’s indigenous panel manufacturers would collapse without assistance at EU level. French panel manufacturer Systovi is near bankruptcy and blames “Chinese dumping”. It is looking for a buyer. Even EDF’s solar panel subsidiary, Photowatt, is facing difficulty. Switzerland’s Meyer Burger Technology recently announced that it would close its solar panel plant in Germany, one of Europe’s largest, in order to focus on the US market. Even in the USA, where solar panel manufacturers have access to subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act, production is flagging in the face of cheap competition from Asia. So much for Ed Miliband’s vision of millions more new “green jobs”.

Lastly, Lime Down, along with other similar projects is likely to be financed by foreign lenders and investors. Australia’s Macquarie Bank is looking to fund it. Thus, many of the interest and dividend payments will go abroad. At the same time, any reduction in our capacity to produce food will adversely affect our balance of payments.

Developers like Island Green Power are taking advantage of the fact that many British farmers (who have an average age of around 60 and are therefore thinking about retirement) are close to giving up on farming as returns have been pushed down by oligopolistic buyers (supermarkets) and increased regulation. Plus, the increased difficulty of selling food into Europe post-Brexit. It is rumoured that Island Green Power will be paying landowners up to £1,000 per acre per year in rent, which is more than they would make by growing cereals. It is difficult to blame them. But, if British farming dies, the country will be extremely vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous world.

Prevailing Groupthink

The problem for the people of North Wiltshire is that the entire UK political class represented in parliament – Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens – have signed up to the net zero by 2050 agenda. The “settled scientific consensus” has persuaded them that there is a “climate emergency” and that we must cut out all fossil fuels by an arbitrary date – regardless of the economic cost and the environmental cost. Very few scientists and even fewer politicians have advanced the view that net zero is both unattainable and undesirable.

There are a few dissidents in the scientific community, however, such as William Happer, a former professor of physics at Princeton; Steven E Koonin, a professor of physics at New York University and a former scientific advisor to President Obama; and John Clauser, a Nobel Laureate. They point out that there is no such thing as “settled science” – science is constantly evolving in the light of new hypotheses which are then put to the test. Koonin, who has written an influential best seller called Unsettled, points out that there were more “extreme weather events” in the 1930s than over the last decade.

In the UK the think tank Net Zero Watch recently published a collection of essays entitled The Music Stops with contributions from, amongst others, Professor Gwythian Prins. Professor Prins, a defence expert, argues that the vulnerability of our offshore infrastructure, and the reliance of the electricity grid on natural gas make the net zero agenda a grave threat to our national security. He cites the closure of the Port Talbot steel plants as an outcome of the net zero policy. We cannot be dependent on imports of primary steel if we wish to maintain and rebuild our armed forces. “Furthermore,” he writes, “our armed forces are wholly dependent on oil to keep them in the field, and our electricity grid will collapse without gas. Any attempt to abandon them will leave us entirely at the mercy of hostile powers”. This is a topic I would like to pursue here shortly.

During the pandemic we witnessed how western governments were forced into a disastrous policy of repeatedly imposing lockdowns based on computer models advanced by “experts” which relied on flawed and incomplete data. The politicians thought they were “following the science”. But the Covid-19 epidemic exposed a serious weakness in our democracy – there was almost no scrutiny of the modelling on which the policies were based. It is a similar story with the net zero agenda. Anyone who questions the wisdom of achieving net zero carbon by a completely random date in the future, and who expresses scepticism of a total reliance on renewable energy, is immediately labelled a “climate denier”.

As a result, some very poor decisions are being taken which will wreak harm for years to come. Beware the law of unforeseen consequences.


On Easter Sunday I attended the nine fifteen service in the village church which was really eight fifteen. I had got up at six which was really five o’clock. British Summer Time began on Easter morn. I now get up in the dark again and wine o’clock is in the light. For what purpose do the clocks have to change twice a year? I really would like to know. This seems to me a wholly unnecessary and disruptive convention. Studies have even shown that the incidence of heart attacks increases when the clocks change.

Thinking about this, it struck me that, though in a digital age, we are still in thrall to fundamentally nineteenth century thinking. Daylight saving was first introduced in Britain in 1916 – following the Germans and the Austrians – as a measure to boost agricultural production. It has been retained ever since. Today, about 70 countries with a collective population of over one billion people use daylight saving. Some countries, including Russia and China, adopted daylight saving in the past but have since abandoned it. Come to think of it, the very term daylight saving is a misnomer because it doesn’t actually save any daylight – the length of the day remains unchanged.

With working from home and given that we are constantly messaging friends and colleagues in different time zones throughout the day, people are in charge of their own schedules and can get up and go to bed when they choose. It’s time to abandon this disruptive practice.


I’m off to Paris over the weekend on the Eurostar. Then I shall continue my journey with SNCF to Alsace. The cost of my train tickets adds up to £290. And yet I could have flown from Heathrow to Mulhouse return on British Airways for around £60. So, going by train is five times more expensive than by air. Am I mad?

Interestingly, according to a piece I read last month in the FT, there are only about six train routes in Europe where the ticket prices compete with the cost of equivalent plane tickets. They are all two-hour-and-a-bit journeys. One of those is London-Paris; the others are Paris-Brussels, Paris-Lyon, Barcelona-Madrid, Rome-Milan and Vienna-Budapest.

In early March, Spain followed France in imposing a limited ban on short-haul domestic fights of less than 500 kilometres – for environmental reasons, naturally. The Dutch government is looking at limiting the number of flights out of Amsterdam Schiphol. Several European governments are considering raising taxes on flying so as to reduce the cost advantage relative to rail travel. But no one is contemplating revising the Warsaw Convention – the international agreement by terms of which kerosene is exempt from tax. Airline tickets are exempt from VAT across Europe, whereas train tickets attract VAT in some countries, including Spain.

Moreover, the short-haul airline business is dominated by nimble, competitive private sector operators like Ryanair and Wizz Air which are still growing rapidly. In contrast, the rail sector in Europe consists almost entirely of state-owned monopolies; and in some countries, including Britain, passenger numbers are well down since the pandemic. There is still no pan-European rail strategy. Hence the rail premium.

Airliner manufacturers like Airbus and many European airports have received government subsidies which feed through into air ticket prices. As a result, there is a strong lobby across Europe which argues that aviation does not pay tax commensurate with the contribution it makes towards global warming. Expect more tax on air travel going forward.

No, I’m not mad. I like trains, especially French ones. And while I love flying once in the air, I loathe airports. I enjoy seeing the French countryside whoosh by at ground level. Moreover, French trains run on electricity generated by nuclear power – so my carbon emissions will be zilch. That’s pleasure without guilt.

Listed companies cited in this article which merit analysis:

  • Meyer Burger Technology AG (LON:0QQ7)
  • Macquarie Bank Group (ASX:MQG)

Comments (11)

  • Ryan Bond says:

    All this makes a lot of sense to me. If we must have solar panels let’s put them on roofs like the CPRE is campaigning for. I live in Scotland in a new house with underfloor heating provided by an air-source heat pump which has been subsidised by the Scottish state for over six years now. That subsidy expires after seven years by which time I shall have an installation of solar panels on my roof and battery storage, all once again subsidised by a grant and interest-free loan. I have specified that the panels will not be Chinese. We need to stop buying anything from that evil state whenever we can. The think tank Civitas advised cutting ties with Chinese businesses four years ago. I think the British consumer is hoodwinked and not caring where goods are coming from e.g. MG cars made in Shanghai and are only MGinos (i.e. in name only). Climate campaigners and, successive governments in this country are not getting to the root of the problem, but instead should be campaigning against buying goods from polluting countries. I could go on.

  • philip baker says:

    Solar and wind investment trusts currently trade at up to 33% discount to NAV and can yield over 10%. Look at NESF, FSFL and most other renewable investment trusts.
    What is going on there?
    The yields feel too good to be true, what am i missing?

  • Paul Bennett says:

    I can’t believe you quote Matt Ridley, he if Northern Rock fame. (Chairman when there was a run in the bank). He’s been widely debunked on both his solar panel article and electric vehicles article.

  • ME says:

    You are absolutely spot on regarding Daylight Saving. There is nothing to be gained by it. It is a form of political arrogance inflicted on us by unelected donkeys. When will someone have the guts to end this madness?
    I too hate airports.

  • Julian M says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with your logic re solar power in the UK and where it should and should not be installed. However some of the facts used are a bit disingenuous. China has 50% installed renewable capacity, the only reason they do not currently use it all and thus still do use 60% coal generated power is because their grid system is not up to it. This is a problem they are addressing, expect rapid changes in the figures just as there has been in their installed renewable capacity over the past few years. Also regarding combustible batteries, yes the authorities in Britain are fixated on the Tesla solution, as you say combustible. However yet again China are ploughing a different course, they have ruled lithium BESS out on safety grounds, and are pursuing VRFB’s in a massive way, these are non combustible and use far more environmentally safe chemicals. Initial costs may be higher, but due to an almost total lack of through life degradation of the storage capacity, and ease of recycling their lifetime costs are equal or better than Lithium.

  • Richard Green says:

    Victor, wonderful to read you piece above, there is an indication of a growing realisation that the climate crisis is not what it’s made out to be.
    On food security, please research this. Many farmers rent their land ar £25 to £50 an acre depending on quality. Defra now offers landlords £250 an acre to plant trees. Surely a direct attact by government on food security. Why? Agenda 21 contains the answer.

  • David says:

    I totally agree with your warnings. Dont think change of government will make a difference.

  • Michael Crabb says:

    Interesting that you attended church. Matins, I hope. Has it occurred to anyone that there are thousands of parish churches in this country, virtually all with the chancel at the east end, meaning that the roof of the nave and the south aisle, if there is one, all face south at something like 45 degrees – ideal for solar power generation. I wonder how much agricultural land might be saved if such a strategy were implemented?

  • Mark Tregurtha says:

    Many thanks. Victor.
    Highly recommended reading, if you haven’t done so already, is

    Solar power in Britain- the Impossible Dream. By Dr Capell Aris.

    Solar has an 11% Capacity factor in the UK. That is all!

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    The calculations on the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere need not be based on “modelling”, in the main. We know which “vibrations” (oscillations of the CO2 molecule, each at a particular resonant frequency) absorb infra-red radiation emitted from the earth, and how much energy is absorbed each time a vibration is induced. I am not sure how frequently this process can be repeated, nor the destination of the absorbed energy. But top physicists will certainly know. We also know how much CO2 there is in the atmosphere – not very much, both as a fraction of the total gas molecules in the atmosphere, and also compared to the volume of the atmosphere as a whole. But the only material that is trotted out to persuade us of the imperative of net zero is “evidence” from historical graphs. This is a forensic approach, not a purely scientific one. There are also several other approaches. For example, the interior of the earth is very hot – look at what comes out of volcanoes! That thermal energy will be constantly travelling to the earth’s surface, but the rate may be slow. Anyhow, I do not mean to say that the calculations outlined above will necessarily result in a substantially lower figure for the rate of global temperature rise due to CO2 – simply that they should be quoted by anyone wishing to make a serious case.

  • Bob Mackintosh says:

    Re. Michael Crabb’s excellent point about church roofs, I raised this at our church AGM a couple of years ago (I attend a physically large Norfolk parish church (in Hingham)), and was told that it was felt that the panels would be too unsightly on the roof in their present form, especially if the building was listed. But apparently they are exploring the possibility of “camouflaging” them in some way, to make them less obvious!

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