“I only recently heard the saying that every 24 hours, enough sunlight touches the earth to provide enough energy for the entire planet for 24 years,” said Graham Stuart MP, the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, as he opened the UK Solar Summit in London.
There is no denying that the UK government’s attitude towards the solar industry has become markedly more positive in the past few years. Stuart was keen to talk about the progress that the UK has already made in advancing renewables production, saying: “It’s been four years since we set our legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050, and of course we were the first major economy to do so. We’ve cut our emissions more than any other major economy in the world. In renewables alone we’ve gone from less than 7% of our electricity coming from renewables in 2010 to over 40% today.”
Despite this, there is still widespread concern that the regulatory environment for solar in particular is failing to keep pace with the US and EU, who are both offering major financial incentives for investment in the sector. Stuart and some of his advisors from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) were in attendance at the UK Solar Summit to reassure the industry that the government was working hard to resolve issues affecting the industry.
Stuart emphasised the need for domestic and commercial rooftop solar in his speech, with over a million homes now having solar panels. “But we want to see more panels installed on residential and commercial properties,” Stuart said, noting that “last year, we removed VAT on solar panels and storage packages installed in residential properties, saving families more than £1000 on average on installations.”
“And we’re exploring options to facilitate low cost finance from retail lenders for homes and small business premises so they can finance green renovations,” the minister added.
Turning to ground-mounted solar, Stuart said he wanted to see “more projects rolled out across the country on previously developed brownfield land, industrial and on low to medium grade agricultural land.” The UK was also making progress in larger solar projects, Stuart said, with the granting of planning consent to the Longfield Solar Farm in Essex only yesterday. Longfield is projected to be around 350-400MW, which will make it the largest solar farm in Britain.
Stuart also talked about the success of the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, which he said had supported 2.2GW of solar in its last round, though it has also received criticism for not being financially ambitious enough.
“In order to take the whole sector forward, we set up a joint government and industry solar taskforce, which will assist in the development of a strategic solar roadmap, setting a clear step by step trajectory for the journey to 70GW by 2035,” Stuart added.
Asked about grid connection problems, Stuart said that “in some sense we’re a victim of our own success, going from less than 7% to over 40% [of electricity coming from renewables], it’s put pressure on a grid that was set up to respond, reluctantly if you like, to keep costs as low as possible. So a lot of work has been going on into that. Nick Windsor, our networks commissioner, has been looking at the transmission side of things, and his report is imminent, and the government’s going to be responding to that.”
“At distribution level, we have also pledged to come up with a connections plan, because effectively we’ve got this massive gunged up system and we have to find ways of sorting it out,” Stuart said, adding that Andrew Bowie MP had been appointed as a minister for networks.
Following the minister’s speech, the conference heard from Tim Warham, renewable energy senior policy advisor at DESNZ, and Chris Hewett, chief executive of Solar Energy UK, who took a wider look at the UK policy environment.
Hewett said he couldn’t imagine hearing such a positive speech from a minister about solar a few years ago, and Warham, who has been looking after solar policy in government since 2015, agreed, saying that there was “almost total silence from ministers around the place and merits of solar” when he began working there.
“It was associated with subsidies, there was a strong feeling that the whole sector was dependent on subsidies, and the government at the time was committed to the market deciding, and it was that market led philosophy which drove them, and solar didn’t seem to fit into that,” Warham said.
However, after the end of the major subsidy schemes like the Feed in Tariff, the sector reduced in size but then began to grow again, Warham said, and it took ministers a while to realise that. Ministers had “quite a short shelf life” in the recent past, Warham said, and each new one needed to be introduced to the benefits of solar.
At the start of the pandemic, Warham said that there were only two people in government working on renewable energy policy, but with the start of the British energy security strategy which led to the ambition for 70GW of solar by 2035. “At that point I was asked how big a team I would need to deliver on the promises made on our behalf. We said ‘we need 20 people’, never believing for a minute that we would get it, but then we were told, ‘the government’s committed to this target, go recruit’. Now we are 18 people in the marine renewables team,” Warham said.
The government’s Independent Review of Net Zero, published in 2022, recommended the creation of a solar taskforce and roadmap to meet the 70GW ambition, Warham said, and the taskforce had met for the first time in May this year. “The minister was very keen that it should be time-bound,” Warham said, “it will be running from May to February-March next year, and we’ll be looking to publish the solar roadmap at that time.”
“The minister is thoroughly committed to making that work, to addressing the various issues that stand in your way from day to day and resolve those in order that we can get out of the way and allow you to achieve that ambition,” Warham concluded.
There is no doubt that the government and the civil service are committed to helping the solar industry grow. With a lot of regulatory reforms like the Review of Energy Market Arrangements and CfDs still up in the air, and the lack of financial incentives on a par with the US and EU, the question remains as to whether the government’s ambition matches its rhetoric.