UK post-subsidy pipeline reaches 3GW, 500MW pegged for 2019 development

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The in-house market-research team at Solar Media has just undertaken its most comprehensive project discovery phase yet, in the past few weeks, revealing that 175 different sites can now be classified as active leads for companies engaged in the build-out of large-scale ground-mount solar farms in the UK.

The total capacity from these 175 sites adds up to 2.974GW, and covers ground-mount sites from 250kW (lower-bound threshold on large-scale definition) to >300MW. The full list is now available on the new release of the UK Large-Scale Solar Farms – The Post-Subsidy Prospect List report, details on which can be found here.

New methodology

As FiTs, ROCs and CfD become incentive schemes of the past for large-scale solar farms in the UK, we have had to redo our research methodology in order to uncover what is the real pipeline of projects. This involves far greater levels of planning portal scrutiny, in addition to feeds from our network of industry contacts from planners to developers and site owners.

In fact, during the past month, we have done in-depth analyses across more than 300 planning portals, in addition to re-evaluating possible extended lifetime or additional-phase build out of legacy projects that missed ROC and CfD qualification, but are seeing material amendments or conditional discharge for potential 2019 ground-breaking.

Also, there is much more focus on the mid-term pipeline, characterised by unearthing all the screening and scoping opinions being sought by early-stage developers. This crucial part of the build-out cycle is generally the first firm reference point for projects 2-3 years out. Importantly, we only include projects where screening/scoping submissions have been lodged within the past 12 months, with only a very few exceptions to this rule. Also, if an EIA report is adjudged to be needed, we remove the site; again, there are a few exceptions here where very large sites can often not avoid this part of the pre-planning protocol.

The net result is the identification of 175 sites, and our continued optimism that 500MW (possibly even being on the low-side) of large-scale solar farms will be constructed in the UK during 2019.

Updated pipeline analysis

The first thing to do in estimating the pipeline is to divide into short-term (12-18 months to completion) and mid-term (18 months to 3 years). The easiest way to do this is simply to remove the screening/scoping entries.

This moves 58 sites (1.536GW) to the mid-term portion (with a probability of these held to 20% in the absence of full application submission). Incredibly, almost half of these screening sites are coming from one developer company, and contributing about 35% of the 1.54GW here. Equally notable is that this developer would appear to have not followed up on any of these sites with a full planning application, although the concept of stacking screening options (in this case almost exclusively assigned as not requiring an EIA) over multiple sites is not uncommon.

The remainder of the pipeline (117 sites adding to 1.44GW) is therefore what makes up the short-term pipeline part. Most of these have planning approval (100 sites across 1.37GW). Almost 30 sites (adding to about 450MW) are also known to be going through site-specific planning amendments and conditional discharge within the past six months. This is by far the clearest indication of the 500MW forecast we are holding to for large-scale solar in the UK during 2019.

Of course, not all the 30 sites (450MW) here will be built in 2019, but we still have a further 70 sites (more than 900MW) that we are tracking, some of which will be built during 2019.

The attention therefore is on this subset of 30 sites (450MW) as the list that every component supplier (modules, inverters, mounting), EPC/sub-contractor and asset-owner/manager needs to have visibility on right now.

Eleven of these sites are greater than 20MW in size. Fourteen fall into the 5-20MW range.

Sewage, waste and water: UK solar’s best friends in 2019

When the final report is written on UK solar for 2018, top of the list of company-types that have kept the business sector moving forward will be the water utilities. What started off with legacy roll-outs from United Utilities can now be seen across a range of different water companies across the whole of the country.

Including in this category are landfill sites, quarries, mines and collieries across about a dozen site owners. More than 40 sites (160MW) fall into the pipeline analysis here for 2019 construction, with project additions going into planning almost on a weekly basis.

In fact, there are a great deal more sites of smaller size (50-250kW) that we are excluding from large-scale status, purely as a consequence of setting the threshold for our research analysis at 250kW per site.

However, the MW stack comes firmly from the >250kW sites. Sixteen sites are in the 1-5MW range, 15 are 500kW to 1MW, but four of the sites are greater than 5MW.

The breaking news here is a new site from one of the water utilities that will be by far the largest site to be built by this grouping in the UK so far, at 12.2MW, and is expected to begin construction in early 2019.

From a planning consultant stand-point, this business has been welcome news, and here the market-leader by some margin has been Savills. The firm has effectively hand-held many of the utilities through the planning process with its legacy track-record in FiT/ROC project developer activities being key to this of recent.

In addition, this segment has created great opportunities for a sub-set of EPCs (UK owned and small-site specific) whose business prospects probably look more healthy today than they did during the ROC days when EPCs and sub-contractors from mainland Europe were so active in UK large-scale construction.

In fact, any delays to some of the large projects in the commercial sector (in particular the >20MW sites being forecast for build out in the next 12 months) could elevate the water/utility companies as the main group for UK ground-mount solar in 2019. Either way, their contributions simply cannot be ignored; anyone looking for a feel-good story in UK solar need search no further.