‘Our fields shouldn’t be full of solar panels’: Truss vows to crackdown on renewables development

Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss has fueled concerns the UK’s onshore renewables sector could face further barriers to development in the coming weeks, after the frontrunner to become the next Prime Minister promised to “change the rules” to ensure farming is prioritised over new solar projects.

Speaking at a Conservative leadership husting held yesterday in Exeter, the Truss also outlined her support for domestic fossil fuel extraction, promising to “exploit all the gas in the North Sea”, and reiterated her pledge to suspend ‘green levies’ on energy bills, arguing the proposed reforms would bolster domestic energy supplies and ease the cost-of-living crisis for households.

In her address to attendees at the event, the Foreign Secretary said she would allow fracking in locations “where communities supported it” and back the maximum extraction of the UK’s offshore fossil gas resources.

“I will also make sure we exploit all of the gas in the North Sea and make sure we use that to bolster our domestic energy supply,” she said. “I’ll move forward faster with nuclear, including major nuclear stations but also small modular reactors which are produced in Derby and a major a major opportunity for our country as well.”

Commercial small modular reactors do not currently exist, although the government is providing significant financial support for the nascent sector in the hope that it could play a role in the transition to a net zero emission energy system.

Truss also again highlighted her plan to introduce a moratorium on the green energy levy, arguing it would help curb the upcoming increase in energy bills while reducing citizens’ tax burden and labeling the current approach as “completely wrong”.

However, she again provided scant details on how the reforms would work in practice. Energy industry insiders have repeatedly warned the proposed moratorium would only shave around £150 off average annual bills that are set to top £3,000 in the autumn. Experts have also argued the government would have to step in and fund the schemes the levies support through general taxation, otherwise the moratorium would result in a pause in funding for energy efficiency and fuel poverty programs and breaches of contract with clean energy generators.

In addition, campaigners and energy experts have repeatedly warned that ramping up domestic gas production will do little to bolster the UK’s energy security in the near term, given the majority of projects today will take years to come online. They have also warned that investing in new fossil fuel production will mean British citizens facing crippling energy bills this winter will remain exposed to international gas price volatility for years to come at a time when renewable energy and other clean technologies promise to drastically reduce the UK’s reliance on costly fossil fuels.

Truss has previously voiced her support for continued renewables development, particularly through new offshore wind projects, but yesterday she threatened to tighten restrictions on onshore renewables development by changing regulations to ensure farming was prioritised over clean energy generation on UK land.

“We need food security,” she said. “Farmers should be getting on with farming, not having to fill in forms, not having to comply with all kinds of rules and regulations. Our fields should be filled of our fantastic produce – it’s the great livestock, the great arable farms. It shouldn’t be full of solar panels, and I will change the rules. I will change the rules to make sure to make sure we’re using our high value agricultural land for farming.”

Truss’ comments echo similar moves from rival candidate Rishi Sunak, who has indicated he would restrict solar development on farmland and reverse proposed moves by the government to allow onshore wind farm development in England where communities express an interest in such projects.

The apparent bidding war between the candidates to restrict the development of some of the most cost effective onshore renewables projects, at a time when energy bills are soaring and concerns are growing over energy security this winter, has left renewables industry insiders privately worried. One industry source said the lack of clarity on the proposed new rules on solar development was a “big concern” for the sector.

Others argued that the impact of onshore renewable development on food production was hugely overstated, with projects rarely located on prime arable land, able to be co-located with livestock grazing, and already covered by stringent planning rules. Analysis has also shown that land use for solar projects is dwarfed by land use for golf courses and other activities that arguably have a greater impact on food production.

The mooted new policies follow the publication of the government’s Energy Security Strategy earlier this year, which did little to support new onshore renewables development or energy efficiency programmes, despite their potential to deliver near term reductions in gas imports.

In related news a letter to Truss and Sunak seen by Express.co.uk from Conservative MP John Penrose urged whoever becomes the next Prime Minister to urgently press ahead with plans to deliver sweeping market reforms that would uncouple the price of electricity from the international price of gas.

Boris Johnson’s government pledged to explore whether it could reform the UK’s marginal pricing and last month launched a major review into how Britain’s electricity market design could be reformed to enhance energy security and cut electricity costs for consumers. But hopes the reforms could be fast tracked have been hit by the leadership election, which has meant decisions on key policy changes will have to wait for the next Prime Minister.

In his letter, Penrose urged the candidates to deliver a “long term cure” to soaring energy prices. “Without [a] long term cure we could be back here in a few months time,” he said. “And again next year. And the year after that too. We need sustainable solutions, which has to include uncoupling our gas and electricity bills from slavishly following the international price of gas, even though it has no impact on the costs of all the energy we generate from renewables.”

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