Shards Of Truth: The Compatibility Of Farming And Renewables Projects

Written by:
16 December 2023
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In this article, Kevin You contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into land use implications of renewable energy targets on prime agricultural land, conducted as part of the IPA’s Net Zero research program.

All media posted onto the IPA website are directly related to the promotion and dissemination of IPA research.

Up to one-third of Australia’s prime agricultural farmland could be destroyed by the industrial-scale solar panels and wind turbines

Perhaps the biggest mistruth about renewable energy infrastructure is that it can coexist with productive farming practices, such as grazing and cropping.

With recent research by the Institute of Public Affairs estimating that up to one-third of Australia’s prime agricultural farmland could be destroyed by the industrial-scale solar panels and wind turbines needed to meet irresponsible Net Zero mandates, establishing the facts around the ability to farm on land carpeted with renewables projects has never been more important.

It has been recently argued that the practice of “solar grazing” is well established’. Based on two solar factories where an elevated layout has allowed for (some) grazing by sheep, it was asserted that ‘solar grazing’ meant agriculture and solar farms could coexist because sheep can graze around and under the solar panels.

This practice has also been discussed as a method of weed control, whereby livestock is used to weed out undesirable undergrowth beneath solar panels. The impact of weeds and vermin associated with solar factories on neighbouring farms has been a frequent complaint, and renewable industry proponents appear to be responding with an aggressive public relations campaign.

However, just as wind turbines damage native wildlife and the landscape, industrial-scale solar projects pose a real threat to animal welfare.

The BRE (European) National Solar Centre’s Agricultural Good Practice Guidance for Solar Farms states:

Larger farm animals such as horses and cattle are considered unsuitable [for solar grazing] since they have the weight and strength to dislodge standard mounting systems, while pigs or goats may cause damage to cabling.

Aside from the harm caused by their contact with exposed electrical wires, animals that graze on solar farms also risk exposure to transformer leakages, which can lead to electrical and fire hazards. There are also the dangers associated with toxic chemicals leaching out from solar panels.

Moreover, in severe weather conditions, any grazing livestock will be vulnerable to shards of broken glass and sharp flying debris. As the UK office of the insurance giant Allianz noted:

In 2021, Storm Arwen wreaked havoc at a solar farm near Wolviston [in the UK], smashing hundreds of glass solar panels and damaging rows and rows of photovoltaics. In extreme weather, solar panels can operate as lifting surfaces making the panels vulnerable to being blown away … Panels are in danger of being smashed by falling debris that’s carried by the wind. If solar farms are struck by lightning it can result in damage to modules, cables and electrical equipment.

This is not a scenario in which you would want sheep grazing under solar panels. Besides, there is the issue of sheep being able to chew through the cables that go from the solar panels to batteries, creating a serious hazard to animal welfare.

Even in ideal conditions, solar farms are harmful to animal welfare. Every year hundreds of thousands of birds are killed by solar farms across the globe. Many are water birds that fly into solar panels, deceived by the panels’ resemblance to the surface of water. This phenomenon is called the ‘Lake Effect’.

The brightness and intensity of the light coming from solar fields, both during the day and at night (because of night-time security lighting), interferes with the natural habitat of local wildlife.

The mitigation strategies needed to address the harmful effects of solar panels on wildlife and livestock only add to the already mounting cost of renewable energy and – in this case – have introduced additional risks to animal welfare.

Photovoltaic cells contain toxic materials like lead, cadmium, selenium and tellurium which can leach into the natural environment, particularly if damaged in such a way as occurs in a hailstorm or fire. They also need to be properly disposed of at the end of their lifecycles, yet up to 90 per cent of photovoltaic solar panels go straight into landfill at the end of their lives.

Unlike the disposal of nuclear waste, there is no well-established, time-tested, and scientifically informed method of disposing of solar waste in a safe and responsible manner.

Across Australia, local communities and fire brigades are deeply concerned about the limited ability to manage the fire risks associated with solar farms, citing international experience of co-located lithium-ion batteries catching fire and producing large amounts of toxic smoke.

Many of Australia’s largest solar projects are located on viable agricultural land. Shamefully, the value of pre-existing agricultural production of the land on which they sit is condescendingly brushed aside in their environmental impact statements. The list of solar farms and projects taking up agricultural land goes on and is set to grow further.

Across Australia, regional and rural communities are being forced to shoulder the burden of renewables projects demanded by the political class and the inner-city elites.

At a time when the federal government is seeking to ban live animal exports on the spurious grounds of animal welfare, there has been no discussion from policymakers how animals forced to coexist with renewable infrastructure will fare. Put simply this is yet another case of ideology trumping commonsense in the futile race to Net Zero.

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