Solar Finance and Investment Europe is being held from 8-9 March 2022 in the Park Plaza hotel in Victoria, London. Image: Solar Power Portal.

The scale of Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project's (NSIP) can help to counterbalance many of the challenges solar project developments face currently, including those around grid connection.

Speaking at Solar Finance and Investment Europe, run by Solar Power Portal’s parent company Solar Media this week in London, Ben Fawcett, head of solar at EDF Renewables UK pointed to the economies of scale that come with such mega-projects, and how this can be used to counter some of problems facing the solar sector more widely like grid capacity  and supply chain constraints.

“If you're applying for grid connections, you're almost lucky to get one this this decade, and things are going further and further out,” Fawcett said.

“That therefore drives you to [look at] where you want to go in the country, perhaps a slightly less developed area, maybe less irradiance, or up in scale as well. So yeah, grid is a big driver, and the cost of reinforcement as well, means that in order to stomach that, you need a larger scale project.”

Speaking on the same panel – The Rise of Nationally Significant Projects – Rosalind Smith-Maxwell, vice president of Quinbrook agreed. The company acquired the UK’s first NSIP solar project Cleve Hill in September 2021, and is taking forwards the 350MW solar-plus-storage site in Kent.

“The amazing thing about investing in these projects is that you have a project that has real purchasing power with suppliers,” she explained.

“So yes, panels are getting more expensive. I've had everyone telling me that shipping went from £1,000 a container to £19,000 a container, it dropped to £11,000 a container. But now gas is expensive and I’m like, ‘Okay, that's great. But I have the largest project in the UK about to place a panel order, which is going to be a sizeable chunk of your factory’s orders for the year. So are we going to talk or are you going to tell me how expensive and sad you are?’ The same can then work for the batteries, the same works on the EPC contracts.”

While there are challenges with scaling up a project, Chris Hewett, CEO of trade association Solar Energy UK highlighted that solar can still be rolled out at pace. This places the technology in a prime position to take advantage of grid availability following the closure of coal power plants for example, as mega solar projects can be rolled out much quicker than competing renewable technologies.

There are currently two NSIP solar farms eyeing development across the Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire county border that are set to take advantage of capacity created by the closure of Cottam and West Burton A coal power stations.

Along with the economic benefits of projects at scale, the panel was keen to highlight that the social impacts and boosts to biodiversity are also multiplied. For Cleve Hill for example, Smith-Maxwell highlighted that it will generate 2,000 jobs directly and indirectly and create 160 acres of habitat improvement, which is expected to deliver a 65% increase in biodiversity.

Developing large-sale solar projects helps support ESG, and goes beyond environmental support to deliver social impact, she continued.

“That's also in terms of regional economic benefit. It's not just the jobs, it’s the business rates, it's the land rates, it's supporting the local school with a new football strip, whatever it is, these projects have the ability to do a lot more than … [beyond] helping the government decarbonise power by 2035, which is the UK's massive target.”