RO uncertainty drives surge in solar farm planning applications

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has caused what could be potentially the most active day in ground-mounted solar applications seen yet in the industry, directly as a result of its proposals to change the Renewable Obligation (RO) goalposts for the solar industry.

In fact, in speaking to planners on 23 July 2015, several expressed their surprise that the planning portal had not actually crashed during the evening of 22 July!

Such is the nature of the 400-plus LPA administrative procedures for acknowledging planning applications, it will be about another four to six weeks before the full numbers are known. But for now, it is safe to assume that DECC has prompted a record that it will probably not be citing as a reference point to its commitment to climate change.

The applications so far studied by the Solar Intelligence team at Solar Media vary considerably. From fully documented applications with landscaping, biodiversity proposals, etc. – what you would expect in a fully-validated application – through to single file pencil-written application form submissions that suggest eleventh hour activities by some planners.

Looking at ground-mount LPA applications covering <5MW RO and large-scale feed-in tariff proposals (>250kW) since the start of the April (current fiscal year), it is clear to see that the week ending 25 July 2015 is a high. Almost all submissions for w/e 25 July are of course dated 22 July. Here is the graphic so far:

Proposals by DECC to change the RO goalposts to the solar industry created a rush to get applications into local planning authorities by midnight on 22 July 2015. Source: Solar Media Report 3 – Opportunity Pipeline, August 2015.

For now, the research team here at Solar Media is hunting through the LPA sites, and the final number of applications is yet to be determined. So, the graphic above is unfinished, in terms of what the week-ending 25 July number will be.

How many of these projects will be built before 1 April 2016? Who knows, but for now, the more valid question is probably: how many will tick all the potential 2015 grace-compliancy requirements?

The peak on 22 July 2015 is certainly an artificial DECC prompted phenomenon. So it is very hard to assign any blame on the industry. What else do you do with a site that has been getting screened, scoped, and with significant pre-application financial commitment, and had not been submitted as a planning application before 22 July? Answer – one thing, get an application in.

Many of the 22 July 2015 applications – if not all – track back six to 12 months, and some even longer. But all were done during a period where the government had a policy in place that was based on ROs being available to the solar industry (albeit for sub-5MW sizing) out to 31 March 2017. Shift the goalposts on 22 July 2015 with a potential hardstop on 31 March 2016, and hey presto – create a daily record of documents emailed to 400-plus LPAs.

Going through the 400-plus LPA websites is a thankless task, and anyone wanting to track the real progress of the 22 July applications is probably wise not to rely upon DECC provided monthly releases of solar planned projects over the next seven months. We recently set up an automated scraping tool to do this with a new proprietary methodology developed by the Solar Media team.

Anyone wanting more information on the 22 July submissions (together with the entire pipeline of solar farm projects in the UK) can get this by subscribing to our Report 3 – Opportunity Pipeline database report. Our research team is updating this daily, and we release updates every two weeks, recognising that monthly release updates for ground-mounted solar between now and 31 March 2016 is simply not an option.