Solar Strategy entrenches PV’s place in the energy mix

As anyone working in solar power knows, just a few years ago this extraordinary technology was dismissed as marginal. Us wise folk in solar knew it was anything but. Now there is government recognition of solar’s potential. DECC has today entrenched solar’s place in the energy (not just renewables) mix with a dedicated strategy. Not even Germany has a dedicated solar power strategy.

It’s not perfect, but the principle of taking a strategic approach to this incredibly dynamic technology, and many of the specific action points, are very welcome indeed. The global solar PV market is estimated at US$134 billion by 2020. Expect next week to hear more from the IPCC on the vast potential of solar power to answer the appalling projections for global temperature rises. As well as responding to what the British Medical Journal rightly categorise as a global emergency for humankind, the UK needs to step up to the vast economic opportunity solar presents. We may be the laggards on renewables in Europe, but we do have strong R&D, product design and manufacturing skills to enable us to strengthen our position in what will be a truly vast global market. As Jonathon Porritt said, anyone who thinks solar is just part of the solution ‘has missed the plot’.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) has long been pushing for a rebalancing of the UK solar market to achieve balanced deployment amongst the domestic, utility (solar farm) and mid/large roof sectors. Solar at the mid-size is highly cost effective yet, for all the high profile schemes, the market has failed to ignite. Given the Government’s focus on value for money, chunky solar schemes on large rooftops make great economic sense – they are cheaper than other renewables supported under the RO, such as offshore wind, wave, tidal, AD and biomass CHP. It’s also just a great use of space.

Our work on the complex barriers to mid/large roof take up is reflected in the Solar Strategy. However, we are taking on trust that DECC will bring forward essential changes to the FiT scheme to ensure the rooftop vision set out clearly in today’s Strategy can be fulfilled.

It will, of course, not be possible to have a thriving mid-scale market without substantial increases in the 50kW -5MW FiT capacity trigger thresholds. The whole industry now awaits these changes. The RO has some limited potential here but it is due to be abolished in 2017. It is also often too complex for community, public sector and commercial sector investors.

The STA is also thrilled to see DECC taking clear aim at reaching one million solar homes in 2015 – that’s a target we’ve been promoting and we are working on meeting with our members and NGO partners. One million UK solar homes will be an extraordinary milestone. It is surprising the government doesn’t already make much more of the 500,000 solar homes across the UK.

Typically for DECC, large-scale solar, or solar farms, are treated in the strategy with more muted enthusiasm. Responsible solar farm developers are well aware that quality matters on solar farms. The whole industry is harmed by shabby schemes. So we’re delighted to see government promoting our 10 Commitments developed last summer in consultation with leading developers, and committing to do more to disseminate planning guidance.

Disappointingly the strategy claims that support for solar farms is eroding, without citing any evidence. Our YouGov poll of last year showed solar farms are by far the most popular local energy development out of shale gas, nuclear, wind and solar, with over 70% support for good quality schemes. Bizarrely, the strategy also suggests that solar farms could potentially harm biodiversity when the very opposite is true. The STA will be launching detailed guidance on biodiversity for solar farms produced with The National Trust, RSPB, Plantlife, Buglife, The Bumblee Conservation Trust and others in Kew Gardens on the 28 April.

It’s a shame that DECC is often too light on facts and too big on backbench politics when it comes to solar farms. The contrast with its active promotion of expensive new nuclear power and controversial shale gas is striking and hugely disappointing. Solar farms developments are outside the Big 6 and dominated by pioneering SMEs. They are delivering independent generation that is massively important to diversifying the UK’s consolidated electricity market, including by boosting small green electricity suppliers. Great care is being taken by leading developers to do solar farms well – indeed some of our members report 100% planning approval rates and often strong local support.

So yes, the industry wants to work closely with DECC to rebalance the UK solar markets including to ensure solar spreads across the rooftops of our big commercial, public and industrial buildings. But let’s celebrate and protect solar in all its extraordinary diversity and at every scale. All our futures may depend on it.

Leonie Greene is head of external affairs at the Solar Trade Association