Q&A: Harmony Energy’s Peter Kavanagh on its maiden solar site and planning permission delays

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Harmony Energy CEO Peter Kavanagh. Image: Harmony Energy.

At the end of October, renewable energy developer Harmony Energy announced its maiden solar project in the UK, with a 30MW site in East Riding.

The unsubsidised development gained planning permission without a single objection, highlighting a change in public mindset around the development of renewable energy projects according to the company’s CEO Peter Kavanagh.

Solar Power Portal caught up with Kavanagh to find out more about why the company – historically a wind and battery developer – has chosen now to enter the solar space, and the challenges of developing a solar project this year.

 

Why did you choose to launch your maiden solar projects now?

Because we felt the price of solar has come down astronomically and the appetite is there particularly in the corporate PPA market; although it's still relatively small, we can see it developing quite rapidly. We think with more of an emphasis globally on corporate responsibility there will be more pressure for people to buy true green energy.

We felt that adding solar into our mix would make a lot of sense. One of our directors, Pete Grogan, was experienced in solar previously, so it was a natural progression for us. And we've also been looking at twinning some of our battery sites with solar as well. It just happened that the standalone opportunity cropped up and we felt that it was a very strong site in terms of location and grid cost to progress.

So we're focusing on sites where the grid cost is extremely low. We've been in the game ten years now, and we know you've got to have your costs as low as possible to make these things work and we don't want to take too much speculative risk on high grid costs.
 

Has it reached a tipping point with the economic possibilities of solar compared with other renewables?

I think it very much depends on location. Onshore wind in the UK generally is still the cheapest form of renewable energy we've got. I think solar is catching up very quickly, with the leaps forward in technology and pricing. And in certain locations, especially the south, it's going to stack up better than onshore wind whereas in the north, you are still going to see onshore wind winning out.

The difficulty we have is that it comes down to planning really. You're in for a much longer time frame with onshore wind than you are solar in most locations, I would say. So to develop out solar at the moment, I would say is even easier than developing out large scale, onshore wind, but it's definitely a cost position for us. Even since March, we've seen cost shift.

We hope that will go further. Obviously, it's a risk because it is an unsubsidised market we're targeting now, which is also I think, a massive positive for all stakeholders.

So it's a wonderful position to be in and one that people probably couldn't have dreamt of ten years ago. I think people thought that solar would always need to be subsidised to make it work and the fact that people are building it without subsidies is a huge positive.
 

And what's next for Harmony in terms of solar?

So we've got several large projects – they are all just shy of 50MW – in the early stages of planning with grid connections secured. We've got a pipeline of about 200MW in addition to the 30MW that is secured at Driffield.

We're very excited for that, although the planning departments for dealing with those have been a bit slow at the moment, to put it diplomatically. I guess every developer is in the same boat as us. These are large scale developments, and while solar is not new to the UK, the scale of them in multiple locations is. We're optimistic about them, given the response we had on Driffield, but they will take time to come through planning.

Other than that, we're excited about the market and there's a lot of new players chasing this market. We are just focused on sites where we believe we can get them developed wwithout CfD. For that, we need to make sure that the connection cost and the grid are very cheap, and the land is cost efficient as well.
 

What is slowing down the planning process for solar projects? Has COVID-19 impacted it?

I think it's a mixture of things. Some of the feedback we've had from smaller districts is that they're handling a lot more housing extensions because of COVID-19. People have more time on their hands and want to invest money into their own property.

And there is definitely an element sometimes that some districts haven't handled developments of this size before. It's a bit of a shock factor, when you're going to them with a 200 acre development. There's no way of glossing over that is a big development and if they're not used to it, and they're working from home, and people are reluctant to take responsibility or ownership of that project, then it becomes quite hard, and I think they get stuck. That is because of COVID-19. Normally we would be having a face to face meeting with the counsellors and give them comfort, explaining to the them that this is what it's going to look like, this is the planting scheme around it, this is the value it brings.

I think with Driffield we were lucky in that I gave a presentation to parish councils, obviously with all the relevant COVID-19 protections in place, and everyone really bought into what we're doing with a good planting scheme around the solar farm, putting the solar farm on land that’s been used for agriculture for 40 years, planting some wildflower meadows in between and also providing some financial benefit to the community.

So I think once you get chance to describe that to the planners it's well received, but with COVID-19 not having that ability to get in front of as many people as we'd like is frustrating.