Agriculture and Renewables: We must change the chip

Pedro Fresco

5 mins - 16 de Febrero de 2024, 07:00

In the midst of the wave of indignation in the agricultural world, renewables have become a scapegoat in which many of the grievances accumulated in recent years are sublimated. Renewables, essentially photovoltaics, are seen as a competitor for land, a competitor that is also considered unfair because it pays high rents against which the profitability of many crops cannot compete. It is often said, with exaggeration and hyperbole, that renewables will destroy agriculture.

But nothing could be further from the truth. For decades, agriculture has been a declining sector in Spain. In addition to its weight in GDP, which over the decades has logically declined as has been the norm in any industrialised country, the amount of land devoted to agriculture has also been greatly reduced. In Spain there are more than 2.3 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land and many more were abandoned in previous decades and are now forest land. Every year, with a few exceptions (curiously this year, 2023), arable land continues to be abandoned. There is therefore no scarce resource in competition with energy generation in general, but we have more land available than is necessary for both activities. To meet the very ambitious photovoltaic targets of the PNIEC would probably require less than 60,000 additional hectares by 2030. The abandoned agricultural hectares in the Valencia region alone are three times that figure.

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The logic of confrontation and antagonization of activities will lead nowhere and agriculture will not improve its situation by creating a false imaginary of existential conflict. On the other hand, renewable energies represent a new activity in the rural world with great potential. Instead of being frightened by the changes and reacting by trying to slow them down, we must consider a different approach: is it possible that these renewable energy parks can generate benefits for the rural world and the activities that already exist there? 

Beyond the taxes and municipal income from these activities, which can be important for small municipalities, there are many things that can be done to look for synergies with agricultural activity. Projects can offer participation to farmers and local cooperatives, additional income to landowners, or cheaper electricity for irrigators or agricultural activities. None of this is regulated or mandatory, but it can be done and there are plants and companies that do it.

Another interesting derivative is to think about what can be done within a solar plant that will benefit the agricultural or livestock activity in the area. Recently, a report was published certifying that in certain solar farms in the US where various species of grasses and wildflowers had been planted, the number of native bees had increased 20-fold. In fact, there are several US senators promoting a prioritisation of solar projects that create suitable habitat for pollinators. 

This is an interesting feature of large solar plants. As they are chemical-free areas where activities such as hunting and constant human presence do not occur, greater biodiversity can be found within them than in adjacent areas, as early evidence gathered by engineer and ecologist Santiago Martín Barajas suggests.

The possibilities for the compatibility of activities are manifold, from the usual grazing of sheep in solar plants to the still exceptional agrovoltaic crops under the panels, an area in which we should advance faster in Spain, where there is still no regulation in this respect. But there are many more options: could solar plant developers bring into production some of the abandoned plots they have acquired, could solar projects help modernise existing agricultural structures, and could these plants promote innovative practices in agriculture?

All these options are possible, but they need to be tested, studied, and adapted to each territory. Regulating it is complex, because a small-holding area is not the same as a large-holding area, or very old areas with a very high risk of depopulation as others without these problems, and that is precisely why it is important to “step on” the territory and get to know it in order to be able to propose the best actions.

The rural world and developers must change their mindset and not see each other as enemies. Renewable plants offer an opportunity for agricultural areas in decline by investing heavily in these areas. Developers should think about what they can do for the territory and the traditional activities of the places where they are implemented, and the inhabitants of the rural world should be open-minded and value the potential of the new activity to improve some things. There are success stories in many areas of Spain, and we can learn from them, but nothing can succeed if it is born out of mistrust of the actors. Transparency and active listening are necessary, but it is also necessary to eradicate prejudices and generate an environment with truthful information, far from the usual hoaxes and myths in these cases.

Renewable energies are not the enemy of agriculture, and certainly not the enemy of the rural world. Nor will they be its salvation, but they can bring positive things and we must work to ensure that this is the case. We need to work to ensure that it is understood in this way, because otherwise the positions will become increasingly bitter, and let us not forget that there are political actors who are working hard to antagonise the rural world with the “urbanites”, climate policies and international organisations. A history that rhymes with that of other eras and that led to backwardness and disaster in societies that fell into this spiral. 
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