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19 August

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are turning green energy into a culture war

In the face of soaring energy prices, they’re complaining about solar panels on farms.

By India Bourke

Living through this summer’s Tory leadership contest is starting to feel like entering the “upside down” in an episode of Stranger Things. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak‘s response to soaring bills, inflation and drought seem to operate in a world in which logic is reversed: instead of supporting policies that could help lift the country out of its economically crippling dependence on fossil fuels, the two candidates are shooting them down.

First, it was the green levies. Truss has said she would “strip out” these taxes on energy bills. Yet an analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that these will only constitute less than 3 per cent of the staggering £5,277 energy bills that could arrive in April. They also support the very technologies that can wean the country off expensive gas. 

Now, they’re coming for solar panels on farms. Writing in the Telegraph yesterday (18 August), Sunak vowed that on his watch, “We will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms,” and that rewilding “should not take place at the expense of food production”. Similarly at a leadership hustings this week, Truss told Conservative members that she wants to see farmers producing food, “not filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms”.

That they are taking this negative approach is perhaps unsurprising, considering the misdirections and mangled facts being published by the right-wing press. The Daily Express has described fracking for shale gas as an “emergency” response to the Ukraine conflict’s pressure on natural gas supplies, despite the fact that it has been calculated to take years for fracking to supply just 5 per cent of UK demand. Another Telegraph piece yesterday blames “faulty eco dogma” for the rocketing price of food – and not the soaring cost of labour post-Brexit, or the escalating price of fertiliser exported from countries at war.

The tragedy is that Britain’s struggling farmers are in desperate need of support and reform – and installing solar panels on some types of land could help them on multiple fronts. Not only can panels boost biodiversity by allowing land to recover from intensive crop production, they can also provide shelter to livestock and shade to drought-parched land. New trials of agrivoltaic panels grown over crops have even increased yields

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In terms of clean energy, solar panels are infinitely preferable to the biofuels that are currently grown on 77 times more arable land in the UK than that used for solar farms, according to the Green Alliance think tank. They are also good for balancing farmers’ incomes: energy prices often peak at times when food yields are low.

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In the face of climate threat, economic logic and severe looming pain for households up and down the country, will the Conservative Party finally ditch its “nimbyist” ways and embrace the technology that will make the future a safer, cleaner, more flourishing place? Stranger things could happen, or so we must hope.

[See also: Even Pakistan’s devastating floods won’t trigger a green revolution]