UK solar; the view from Europe


It’s ever so slightly awkward being a Brit in Brussels at the moment, but it’s perhaps not so awkward as it is wandering around a European solar event discussing the policy outlook for solar in the UK.

We’re approaching two years on from the newly-elected Conservative government taking an almighty green axe to renewables support mechanisms and the sector – particularly solar – is still reeling from the damage.

And the onslaught shows no sign of letting up.

Wednesday’s budget revealed far more about the government’s current stance to renewables than was immediately apparent. Indeed, hitting ‘Ctrl+F’ followed by the words ‘solar’, ‘renewables’ and ‘climate’ – a journalist’s favourite tool whenever such documents are released – returned nothing in terms of policy movement.

If that wasn’t predictably depressing (or depressingly predictable) enough, discovering that following two days of hugely constructive debate about the future shape of the European solar market only served to compound that resignation.

This week’s Solar Power Summit, organised by European trade body SolarPower Europe, amassed representatives from a host of solar and energy heavyweights to discuss the next stages of the technology on the continent. Having added a further 6.7GW of capacity in 2016, talk is quickly turning towards how to best manage solar’s role in future networks. Digitalisation, battery storage, smarter grids and optimisation were topics that were all keenly discussed.

But it didn’t stop there. There was plenty of discussion about which markets stood to be ‘hot’ in the coming months and years. Powered by the ROC, the UK has spent the last three years at the very top of the European pile. The general consensus is that the country’s time as a European solar heavyweight is drawing to a close, with other nations ready to pick up the mantle.

France’s deputy permanent representative to the EU Alexis Dutertre opened the first day of the summit by discussing his own country’s ambitions for solar and how the technology would “fully take part” in its transition towards a more sustainable power sector.

Dutertre went on to discuss the runaway success solar had experienced in the country, explaining the thought process behind subsidy schemes established to support the deployment of 2.6GW of PV in the country.

“[Solar] has overshot expectations, and we’ve acted accordingly to increase our ambitions,” Dutertre said.

Members of the UK solar sector might want to re-read that quote and allow it to sink in. The French government, having witnessed solar deployment exceeding expectations, has decided that it would be of strategic importance to the country to ramp up support for the technology.

A penny for George Osborne and Amber Rudd’s thoughts on that particular sentiment, please.

Yesterday France proved it was willing to walk the walk as well as talking the talk. It awarded 500MW of large-scale and 450MW of self-consumption tenders, with a further 210MW of support handed to solar roads and other innovative methods.

Murmurs of interest in future tenders in Germany, signs of life in Spain and Italy and Eastern Europe were also heard.

Talk of the UK’s solar sector was mainly limited to a mixture of shock and derision, perhaps best described by Solarcentury’s Seb Berry remarking that the situation in the UK was a best case example of how to get it spectacularly wrong.

Most delegates could hardly fathom the sheer pace of the turnaround. How the UK had so quickly and so abruptly changed face, with such damaging effects, has caught people by surprise. Explaining the business rates debacle and particularly the discrepancy between state and private schools resulted in either scathing chuckles or perplexed contempt.

Between this, a complete lack of energy policy in general and everything else that’s occurred since Brexit, in the eyes of Europe the UK is stumbling around the garden stepping on a series of rakes, the embarrassment adding up each time. We’re a Nelson Muntz ‘Ha, ha!’ short of being left well and truly red faced.

Meanwhile, Europe is getting on with it. The continent might not be installing as much solar as it historically has done, but there is tangible deployment happening and the sector is having meaningful and productive discussions about how it fits in with the wider energy mix. There’s a palpable excitement that European solar is maturing and realising its true potential.

The UK, meanwhile, only appears to be stagnating. For a country whose prime minister insists she wants it to lead the field in technologies such as battery storage, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

A lack of clarity in the budget, delays to a Levy Control Framework replacement and an emissions reduction plan that is now three months behind schedule (and counting) only paint a picture of a country at risk of being left behind as its nearest neighbours press ahead with the energy transition.

The government’s forthcoming revamp of energy policy had better be adventurous and ambitious, or it won’t just be as awkward as it is now for the UK to stand toe-to-toe with its European counterparts. We’ll be left out in the cold.