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The government set a legally binding target to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 100% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. This is known as the ‘net zero target’. To meet this target, the government has set the aim of “a fully decarbonised, reliable and low-cost power system by 2035”.

The government said a fully decarbonised power system would be “composed predominantly of wind and solar”. It aims to achieve 70 gigawatt (GW) of solar power by 2035 (up from 15.7 GW at the end of 2023).

Planning consent for solar farms

Solar farms usually require planning permission. The size of a solar farm will determine which body decides the application. For example, in England:

  • Solar farms with a generating capacity below 50 megawatts (MW) need planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA).
  • Solar farms with a generating capacity above 50 MW need development consent from the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, because they are nationally significant infrastructure projects’ (NSIPs).

Planning is a devolved matter. In the devolved administrations, the size of a solar farm will also determine whether the LPA or the government decide an application. However, thresholds differ across the UK.

Policies for small-scale solar farms (below 50 MW)

LPAs in England will decide applications for smaller-scale solar farms in line with their local plan and the national planning policies. Government guidance advises LPAs to approve renewable energy developments whose “impacts are (or can be made) acceptable”.

Government guidance states that there “are no hard and fast rules about how suitable areas for renewable energy [developments] should be identified”. It advises LPAs to consider their potential impacts on the local environment and the views of local communities when identifying suitable sites.

However, government guidance generally guides development away from the “best and most versatile” agricultural land and states that many renewable energy developments are not “appropriate” development for green belt land.

Policies for large-scale solar farms (above 50 MW)

The Secretary of State will decide applications for large-scale solar farms in line with energy national policy statements. These were updated in January 2024. They now state that the development of low-carbon infrastructure, such as solar farms, is a “critical national priority”. This means that the Secretary of State should generally grant consent to low-carbon infrastructure.

The updated national policy statement for renewable energy infrastructure also advises that solar farms should be sited on previously developed and non-agricultural land. However, it does not prohibit the siting of solar farms on agricultural land.

Land use for solar farms

Solar farms are not evenly distributed across the UK. 43% of ground-mounted installations (that have a capacity of at least one megawatt) that are already operational or are awaiting/under construction are located in the South East and South West of England.

It is not possible to calculate how much land is used for solar farms and how much of different types of land are used. 

Some organisations, such as the countryside charity CPRE, have expressed concern that “valuable farmland” is often “the location of choice for solar developments”. CPRE has said it is “essential” to preserve agricultural land for food production.

Renewable energy groups, such as Solar Energy UK, have argued that “solar farms pose no threat to the UK’s food security” (PDF). They also point to the multi-functional use of land, for example, grazing sheep on solar farms, to highlight that solar power and farming are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Barriers to the deployment of solar power

At the end of 2023, the cumulative installed capacity of solar power in the UK was 15.7 GW. The government aims to achieve 70 GW of solar power by 2035.

The Environmental Audit Committee, a Commons Select Committee, said meeting this target would be “challenging given existing barriers and current rates of deployment” (PDF). The government’s advisory Climate Change Committee also said current deployment rates were “significantly off track”.

Two of the main barriers to the expansion of solar power they identified were grid capacity and delays in securing grid connections. The Environmental Audit Committee said “upgrading the electricity grid is a crucial prerequisite to the achievement of net zero” (PDF).

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