20GW by 2020: What mix are we looking to achieve?

Depending on who you ask, energy minister Greg Barker’s ambition of 20GW by 2020 is either pie-in-the-sky rhetoric or a critical underestimation of what solar can achieve in the UK.

Regardless of where you stand, 17.5GW over the next seven years will require the UK solar sector to install significant capacity across the market.

Right now the growth is being driven almost entirely by large-scale solar developments, a.k.a. solar farms. The first quarter of this year saw an incredible 0.5GW of solar farms installed and the scale of installations is showing no signs of slowing down at all.

Yet herein lies the problem –  how much large-scale solar should industry install?

Solar is popular. In fact, solar is extremely popular; 82% of the British public want to see more of it installed. However, the avalanche of solar farm applications is threatening to damage the public’s goodwill.

Some of the objections to solar farms are just pure nimbyism at work. Others though are genuinely concerned about (what they term) the industrialisation of prime-grade agricultural land.

Even though the vast majority of projects proposed sit on low-grade agricultural land (three or four), opposers still see the land as agricultural land. There is no point explaining to them that the physical footprint of a solar farm only takes up around 30% of the proposed site and that  the rest can be grazed by sheep. Or that the 20-year operational lifetime of the solar farm will allow the land to recover, offering it the opportunity to fully recoup and return to prime grade agricultural land.

Nope – to them it is a case of energy security versus food security.  

What this all means is that the solar industry needs to focus on the aspects of solar that have almost universal support:

  • Utility-scale solar developments of brownfield sites
  • Large-scale solar developments on commercial roofs
  • Granting households energy independence through domestic installs

But what mix should we be looking for?

Thursday’s strike price announcement for solar caused a brief flurry of panic on my part. Listed alongside the strike prices was DECC’s prediction for how much large-scale solar could be installed by 2020.

The figure? 2.4-3.2GW.

Surely this was a mistake? How on earth would solar reach 20GW by 2020 if large-scale solar’s growth was stymied to just 3.2GW. After a bit of digging the Solar Trade Association confirmed that the figure was in addition to the projected deployment under the Renewable Obligation scheme.

The STA predicts that the industry will be able to install 1.5GW of large-scale solar a year. That totals another 6GW until 2017, when the use of contracts for different will become mandatory. If we then look at the government’s predictions that leaves 3.2GW (at the upper end) to be installed from 2017-2020.

All in all, that means that there could be as much as 9.2GW of utility-scale solar installed in the UK by 2020 which would leave 10.8GW for the commercial and domestic sectors to make up.

But is a 45/55 split the right mix between large-scale ground-mounted solar and roof-mounted solar?

Perhaps the long-awaited solar strategy might shed some more light on how the government sees the mix turning out by 2020.

One thing that is certain is that for the solar industry to hit the 20GW ambition, solar farms will be critical. However, the groundswell of growing public unrest could jeopardise industry’s attempts. Greg Barker has already been very clear in his view that “for larger deployments, brownfield land should always be preferred”.

Now more than ever, the solar industry needs to champion solar farm best practice - incidentally you can submit entries for the most successful large-scale solar site category in the Solar Power Portal awards here - the UK solar industry needs to demonstrate excellence in site selection, community engagement, biodiversity and minimising visual impact just as much as it needs to for yield and ROI. Entries close on 12 July, so the clock is ticking.

If solar in the UK is going to realise its massive potential, public support for solar farms will become critical.