Problems with Solar Energy: Considerations for Landowners

Topic: new solar projects Read Time: 8 mins
Landowner type:
Independent landowners | Institutional landowners
Energy: Solar
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If you’re a landowner interested in hosting a renewable energy project, you might want to learn more about the problems with solar energy. After all, there’s nothing better than getting the FULL picture. Here, we’ll discuss the more complicated aspects of solar energy to help you make an informed decision about leasing your land.

We understand that getting a new solar project on your land can feel overwhelming. In those early stages, you might need to determine whether the problems with solar energy outweigh the potential passive income stream.

Now, we’re all about approaching renewable energy in a balanced way. So, we’ve rounded up a list of people’s most common issues with solar energy and will talk through them with you. We’ll cover common concerns and how landowners can navigate them to keep their projects running smoothly.

Let’s dive in.

If you plan to build a solar project on your land, you’ll need a lot of acreage.

A solar farm generally requires about 25 acres of land for every 5 megawatts of installation capacity. And as not all of this land can be used for a project, most developers will request up to 200 acres of land for a large-scale project.

If you’re looking to host a smaller project, you might get away with having 10 acres or so to spare. However, these projects typically aren’t as profitable as larger ones. So, developers rarely want to invest in smaller plots of land (as the returns aren’t as appealing).

For landowners, this can be one of the major problems with solar energy, as they’ll be worried about the impact on their day-to-day operations. However, a significant caveat is that solar farms actually don’t sign

Aerial view of a solar farm

Opinions on solar energy across the UK are variable, but most people support large-scale solar projects. In fact, at least eight in ten people are in support of solar power (which is an excellent step towards the attitude we need to reach net-zero limits by 2050)

However, some people think rows and columns of solar panels in the countryside are unattractive. Some communities even go as far as to say these panels devalue the area around their homes.

Although this is mainly unproven and untrue based on local housing prices, not everyone is 100% supportive of solar. While this primarily comes from the “Not In My Backyard” contingent of the UK (that generally opposes new developments), we do have to consider them in this argument.

The beauty of this viewpoint is that it’s entirely subjective. While some of the population will always oppose renewable energy projects, a large proportion of the country appreciates and values them. So, the attractiveness of the panels themselves is one of the problems with solar energy that isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

A solar panel technician removing a solar panel

It might not be one of the problems with solar power that you’ve thought much about, but decommissioning a solar project involves a lot of waste. This is mainly because there is little incentive to recycle solar waste, as recycling is far more expensive than sending the waste to landfills.

Now, we’ll lift your spirits a bit by saying that this is more of a problem in the US than in the UK. In the US, it costs between $20 and $30 to recycle a single panel.

When you compare this to the $1-2 cost to send a panel to landfill, it’s easy to see why developers opt for the less environmentally friendly option.

Although the situation is slightly better in the UK, it’s still an expensive process (especially for large projects). As of August 2023, there’s only one specialist recycling centre for solar panels in the UK – Recycle Solar, which is a small operation tucked away in Scunthorpe. Plus, it’s important to recognize that the recycling centre doesn’t have the manpower to deal with thousands of panels from solar farms.

It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll need specialised labour to deconstruct solar farms. If you’re wondering why, it’s because panels often shatter when they’re removed. So, one of the problems with solar energy is that the panels can be hazardous to remove and recycle.

What about the flip side?

Well, we’re glad you asked, as there are companies who ARE committed to reusing or recycling their panels. For example, the energy developer Ørsted recycles ALL solar panels from its global portfolio. Equally, First Solar is a world leader in recycling and offers recycling facilities in Ohio, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Germany. This has boosted their recycling capacity (which should encourage other developers to do the same).

Solar Power World says companies like Working For The Son Solar (WFTSS) in California are also repurposing old panels.

The source states that:

picture of yellow quotation marks

Since its start, WFTSS has kept more than 100 tons of solar materials from landfills. Its repurposed panels have been sold to buyers like solar DIYers and companies seeking replacement parts for existing arrays. By selling repurposed panels and decommissioning large-scale arrays, WFTSS can fund its main mission of bringing pro bono solar projects to indigenous people of Mexico.

So, decommissioning doesn’t always mean the end of a solar panel’s life.

Solar power is beautiful, but it’s not always the most reliable energy source in the UK. With an average of 4.3 daily sunlight hours, the UK isn’t the most promising solar panel spot. This isn’t to say it’s a poor location for solar in general, but it receives less irradiation than areas like Dubai, which boasts around 8 to 10 hours of sunlight daily.

You’ll also need to understand that south-facing spaces are far more reliable than north-facing spaces when it comes to capturing sunlight. Of course, the UK will naturally receive far less light during winter (when projects are quite inefficient). 

However, intermittency is not all doom and gloom. Energy can be balanced throughout the year by using high-capacity battery systems. Commercial battery systems can offer backup power and capture excess solar energy during high-yield periods, offering an uninterrupted power supply throughout the year. This should offer landowners and developers long-term, stable income – and what could be better than that?

Close up photo of a polycrystalline solar panel

Certain solar panels require expensive and relatively rare materials to produce. So, it’s tricky to say how sustainable solar farm projects will be over time as these materials start dwindling.

There are several materials used to make solar panels, but the rarest are:

  • Neodymium
  • Dysprosium
  • Indium
  • Gallium
  • Cadmium
  • Tellurium

Tellurium is used in thinner solar panels and makes up just 0.0000001% of the Earth’s crust. In short, it’s hard to find and is an eye-watering three times rarer than gold. As the UK powers towards net-zero limits and a target of 85GW of solar by 2050, mining for these rare materials will only ramp up. For that reason, this must be done sustainably.

If you’re a landowner, it’s doubtful that you use your land exclusively to host a renewable energy project. And if you’re using it for agriculture, there’s every chance you’ll need to sacrifice viable farmland for rows of solar panels.

This isn’t necessarily an issue if the land isn’t being used, but you might be surprised at how much space access roads and mounting poles take up. Under an option agreement, a developer will completely reserve a large section of your land. You still technically own it, but you won’t be able to build on it, work on it, or make any changes during the lease period.

It’s worth recognising that you can still farm with solar panels on your land (depending on the location). We just wanted you to carefully consider the impact that signing away parts of your land might have on your typical profits.

On the other hand, there are cases where agricultural land doesn’t even need to be touched. For example, Veolia has increased its solar power capacity by 59MW on an old landfill gas site. This restored landfill site would have been completely unused otherwise, making it a great way to repurpose large plots.

Solar panels are expensive, and the initial cost of setting them up can run into the hundreds of thousands for large projects. 

Some small community farms can cap out at around £500,000. But the cost of the modules alone can run up to £200,000 per megawatt of power produced for larger projects. As a result, securing financing for solar panels can be a tricky business for developers.

However, it’s worth noting that landowners won’t be responsible for the startup costs of any solar project—unless they’re self-developing and self-financing. The brunt of the financial cost is the developer’s responsibility, and they’ll either fund the project with their own capital or source external investment.

All landowners will need to worry about is choosing the right payment arrangement for their needs. Whether that’s a fixed income, a hybrid arrangement, or a turnover-based approach, a developer WILL pay to lease your land.

Before closing out this section, we’ll also say that self-developing landowners will eventually make back their initial investment. As we mentioned earlier, the average ROI for a solar farm is around 10-20%. Most projects start turning a profit within 10 or 15 years, giving you upwards of 20 years to reap the rewards in full.

As you can see, there are a few problems with solar energy that just come with the territory. Along with using relatively rare materials, building solar panels also requires space and a significant financial investment. However, the problems with solar energy certainly don’t outweigh the benefits.

A standard PV system in the UK saves 0.9 tonnes of CO2 annually. When you think of how many panels make up a typical solar farm, the reduction in pollution gets even more impressive. Additionally, most problems with solar energy relate to cost, appearance, or the amount of space they take up. However, as 88% of the UK supports solar energy development around the country, these fears aren’t exactly widespread.

If you want to make extra income by leasing your land for solar, get in touch. We’ll happily guide you through the process. Whether you want to ensure you’re maximising rent or don’t know how to kickstart your renewable energy journey, we’re here to help.

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