Special Report

Progress to net zero and how we could be generating 13 times more clean energy

England could be producing 13 times more clean energy from onshore wind and solar farms using less than three per cent of its land, according to a new report from Friends of the Earth (FoE).

Parties are divided over the future and benefits of solar wind farms.

Researchers from FoE and Exeter University identified 219,800 hectares of land considered most suitable for onshore wind, and 295,000 hectares with potential for new solar farms – some of which could be used for both.

The research focused on appropriate sites that protected nature and important landscapes, so excluding places like national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, higher grade agricultural land and heritage sites.

Totalling 2.9% of land in England, this would still be enough to generate 130,421GWh of solar power and 95,542 GWh of onshore wind, which is far above the current combined level of 17,063 GWh.

Estimates have suggested the UK needs to double the amount of renewable electricity produced over the next six years to help power the green transition and replace energy from fossil fuels.

Achieving renewable targets

There are also targets to increase solar capacity to 70GW, from the current 15.7, install 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028, from the current 40,000 (certified) and cut carbon emissions by 68% by 2030.

Friends of the Earth say not even all the land identified would be needed, once other clean energy sources such as rooftop solar and offshore wind, are explored and factored in.

But if all the land was developed for solar or onshore wind, 2.5 times the amount of electricity needed to currently power all homes in England could be generated.

Tony Bosworth, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Unleashing the UK’s immense potential to generate cheap, clean homegrown renewables is essential to bring down our energy bills for good and meet the UK’s vital international target to reduce carbon emissions by two thirds by 2030.

“We urgently need our political leaders to pull their heads out of the sand and produce a strong, ambitious and fair new climate plan that lifts the barriers to onshore wind and solar power and secures investment in the infrastructure needed to support the switch to renewables. These are win-win policies for creating long-term jobs, boosting our ailing economy and protecting our planet for future generations.”

New climate plan needed

Friends of the Earth is calling for:

  • All parties to commit to lifting the restrictions on onshore wind farms in England the run up to the next election
  • Local authorities to identify ‘suitable areas’ for renewables in their Local Plan and/or Local Area Energy Plan
  • Investment in an electricity grid that’s fit for the 21st century as a top infrastructure priority
  • All renewable developments to deliver biodiversity benefits greater than the current statutory 10% minimum
  • Communities to benefit and be properly engaged in plans for renewable projects

Ali Abbas is a member of Manchester Friends of the Earth and the co-founder of Greater Manchester Community Renewables, a community energy project that has installed solar panels across nine schools and one community centre since 2015.

He said: “Our rooftop solar panels have generated enough electricity to make over 85 million cups of tea, and prevented around 360 tonnes of carbon pollution entering the atmosphere. What’s more, by offering cheap, clean electricity throughout the energy crisis, we’ve saved the schools and community centres that we work with £160,000 on their bills, while creating a £40,000 community fund from any profits to help schools roll out further green initiatives.

The Solar Energy UK response

In response to the report, Gemma Grimes, director of policy and delivery at Solar Energy UK, said: “Friends of the Earth’s welcome report is a good illustration of the wide suitability of land for solar development. If we assumed that the same ratio of ground-mounted to roof-mounted developments that we see today continues – roughly 2:1 in terms of capacity – we would need about 35GW of new solar farms to reach the Government’s goal of 75GW by 2035.

“That would mean that deployment would extend to a fraction of the area marked out in the study, while still offering lower bills, a more secure energy supply and benefits for wildlife.”

Solar Energy UK and a number of partners recently undertook the biggest survey of solar farms to date, to reveal how they can become havens for biodiversity.

Progress against net zero targets

Looking at the wider picture and the progress to those net zero targets, provisional data released by Government the end of March said emissions have been halved.

The provisional data suggests greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by 53% between 1990 and 2023, or 50% when including emissions from international aviation and shipping.

The electricity supply sector saw a drop in emissions of 19.6% with a fall of 7.2% in homes and 8% in industry. Nearly half of the UK’s electricity generation now comes from renewables, compared to just 7% in 2010. The UK is home to the five largest operational wind farms in the world.

At the same time, the economy has grown 80%, the Government says.

Progress against Energy Security Strategy

According to analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) only three out of ten commitments published in the Government’s British Energy Security Strategy two years ago have been achieved so far.

Jess Ralston, energy analyst at ECIU said: “The UK has had two energy security strategies within two years and we’re still going backwards, becoming more dependent on foreign imports. As a country we’ve spent more than £100bn on gas over the crisis with the bill payer and taxpayer bearing the brunt.

“The Government’s Bill on oil and gas drilling has been described as ‘unnecessary’ by the regulator and will generate minimal more output. The cold truth is the North Sea is in ongoing decline so unless we shift away from gas we’ll have to rely increasingly on imports. We either make the switch to electric heat pumps powered by British renewables or stick with gas boilers running increasingly on foreign gas.

“The PM’s U-turning on insulation standards and heat pumps is leaving the UK less energy independent. And his Government’s policy failures in securing new offshore wind farms mean the UK could miss out on twenty-two times more homegrown electricity than could be generated by gas from new North Sea licences. If it genuinely wants greater energy security it’s prioritising the wrong things.

“The Government has extended and increased the heat pump grant and sales are picking up, but its delaying other heat pump policy under intense lobbying from gas boiler manufacturers means we’re still lagging far behind other countries including the US and many in Europe. Heat pumps are one of the UK’s best weapons in the fight for energy independence.”

What do you think? Could more be done to achieve net zero? Your views are welcomed to news@renewableenergyinstaller.co.uk.