Prior to getting into solar PV five years ago I worked in wind for ten. One thing that can be said for the wind industry, putting aside mistakes such as neglectful public consultation, is that it speaks with one coherent and unified voice. As such it is all the stronger and government takes it very seriously. Its singular trade organisation, RenewableUK (RUK), represents on- and offshore wind at all scales (kW to MW), as well as wave and tidal interests. It represents individuals, small, medium and large companies and academia. What RUK has managed to do over many years is to contain the invariable tensions within such a diverse sector and it has applied a disciplined professionalism to political engagement.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for solar PV. We are a divided house. As such we are easy to divide and conquer for any government, stakeholder or regulator. There are no less than three trade associations purporting to represent solar PV. I have tremendous respect for the many people involved in the trade associations; most are dedicated, passionate and committed servants of the cause. Yet, for various reasons, some of the associations squabble. One in particular unhelpfully favours some subsectors over others. There is good will between some trade associations and even a commendable degree of coordination between some of them. But there is ill-will between others. These partake in an uncoordinated scramble to position themselves with respect to government policy. Despite the many good people in all of these organisations, our industry has been weakened by certain personality conflicts, unprofessionally cosy political affiliations and, in certain quarters by a degree of empire-building. DECC hears not just one voice, but more than one and receives mixed and even conflicting messages. This sad state of affairs presides over the existential threats our industry currently faces.

Rather than effective engagement with government where personal political preferences are put aside to serve the solar cause, one trade association in particular blatantly fails to do this. They undermine those others who do seek to represent the full spectrum of scales of solar PV in a politically disciplined and professional manner. Wariness of being too critical of government, even in a constructive manner, means this trade association ends up becoming an apologist for government policy. Cosy relationships with Number 10 has not pre-empted the recent announcements that so threaten our industry, nor has this strategy succeeded in opening up a viable commercial rooftop sector that might serve as an alternative for solar farm developers. This failure is not the fault of those who have made commendable and professionally disciplined efforts to represent our industry. The flaw lies in our collective inability to speak strongly as one voice, to send coherent and non-conflicting messages to government. It’s time we put political biases and subsector narrow vested interests aside and draw a line under division. We desperately need a comprehensively coordinated approach. This requires some means to communicate internally between all the trade associations to reach a degree of consensus and then a coordinated basis to engage government and the media. Zero tolerance should be applied by members of those trade associations that are unwilling to constructively engage with others in order to reach consensual working relationships. In the end we, the companies and individuals who actually work in the solar industry, do not serve the trade associations, but the contrary. We ARE the industry and any trade association that does not understand this needs to be ruthlessly reminded of this fact. We can no longer afford Trojan horses in our midst.

The government strategy has been to present us with false choices and sadly, to a degree, we have fallen for this. The argument they present is that the UK needs to “live within its means” and therefore it is necessary to sacrifice entire subsectors, such as ground-mount solar farms, to preserve the Levy Control Framework budget. This is a dangerous argument and one should be very careful what one wishes for. Because if one agrees with DECC that the LCF budget is bust and share their primary concerns about costs one can only conclude that “something has to give”. Logically, this is an argument in favour not of axing solar farms, the cheapest form of solar PV, but of culling the comparatively more expensive domestic and commercial rooftop subsectors. It would be very easy to digress into this false choice debate. Instead, we need to stand uncompromisingly for solar PV at all scales, in order to realise solar’s full potential. Small, medium and large, on land and on rooftops, all complement each other, building public confidence and momentum and reducing module, component and supply chain costs. I would therefore urge that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder as an industry. We are still a small industry even if we were to decide to work coherently and effectively together. In practice we have, to date, been an even smaller weaker fragmented and more politically impotent industry, where narrow self-interests fight their respective corners. It’s important to remember that the 15-16% of UK demand solar PV supplied in early July was a collective achievement – many solar PV projects at all scales, from a few modules on a roof to fields of solar panels. The tremendous potential of solar PV can only be fully realised if all scales are fully deployed and contribute to a low carbon energy mix. And we all need to work in coordination to make that happen.


The false choice I am referring to is based on the flawed premise of the Levy Control Framework. The problem with the LCF is it looks only at costs to consumers and not at benefits. There is now strong evidence to suggest that the phenomenon known as ‘cannibalisation’, where periods of generous amounts of solar and wind on the system depresses energy prices for consumers, does so to roughly the same extent as the costs to consumers in subsidy. The net effect of this is that wind and solar are not being subsidised. That is more than can be said about nuclear, for example. And if we were to ignore these benefits we ought still to be singing from the same hymn sheet in reminding DECC that solar PV is not primarily responsible for busting the LCF budget. It has just come along late in the day to stake a claim on what remained of the LCF after over 60% of it was assigned to very large offshore wind and biomass projects. The government also did not correctly allow for the reasonable growth that they ought to have expected from solar PV despite being consistently warned. Solar PV has been the scapegoat for earlier decisions made by DECC and its’ inadequate budgetary provision for solar’s growth.

The key point is we should not be squabbling amongst ourselves for the crumbs that remain of the LCF pie. We should instead be standing united for fairness and the full realisation of solar PV’s potential.

Solar Power Portal’s campaign is a chink of light during this dark time precisely because it encourages a coherent and united approach. It is a singular platform. Through it we have the opportunity to find common ground and converge on a common strategy.

So what are our future prospects? I think they are better than might be imagined, even for the large-scale subsector. The changes to the RO make plain the government's intentions to freeze solar farm development. Coupled with constructive engagement during consultations and potentially alongside various legal challenges that might be pursued the industry will be in waiting mode for key announcements on FiTs and CfDs. The latter represents the sole remaining potential route to market for large-scale, ground-mounted solar PV.

CfDs need to be fought for and there is scope to do so. They are the market mechanism of choice for government under EMR and any unjustified exclusion from them for all but the least advanced technologies would arguably go against the UK's obligations under the EU Renewable Energy Directive. There are sound reasons for investors in the UK to fully and reasonably expect CfDs to remain a route to market until genuine grid parity is reached. Evidence and hard data is key here. Unless government wishes to invite even further rounds of legal action it will think very carefully before pulling the CfD rug from under solar PV before it has even gained traction within the new mechanism. If wind is excluded as is the government’s stated intention they will no doubt face similar wrath from RUK. Watch this space.  

The key ask – apart from inclusion – is a large enough pot of money to meaningfully support solar and the other technologies in the established pot. In response to solar’s continued inclusion, a reasonable concession by our industry might be to accept a reasonable maximum cap on solar in order to fairly preserve a portion of the pot for other technologies such as biomass.

We don’t want to monopolise the pot, just a fair portion of it to sustain a vibrant industry and bridge it to parity.

While we look forward to a further CfD round potentially early next year we in the developer/EPC community will in the short term be cracking on building our own and others grace period projects. This will tide us over until CfD projects and post-subsidy market mechanisms take hold.

It would be a serious mistake for self-proclaimed soothsayers to call time on large-scale, ground-mount solar. On the basis of cost – and I appreciate more than most that cost is not the only consideration – it is cheap, effective and very successfully integrated within many landscape contexts. It employs a very substantial number of people in our industry. There are no viable alternatives for solar farm developers. The commercial rooftop subsector cannot be realistically relied upon to take up the slack. The inevitable result would be significant job losses. It would be crazy to give up on the cheapest most rapidly deployable form of solar PV simply because Liz Truss and a few Tory Backbenchers don't like it. Those of us who fully appreciate its potential will fight hard to see it safely through these troubled times.

Worse still than job losses would be an even smaller rump of a solar industry. Even weaker and more marginal, its influence and impact on society tempered, its wings clipped, its tremendous potential unfulfilled.