To coincide with energy day at the COP26 climate conference on Thursday 4 November, trade association Solar Energy UK ran a series of sessions on panel discussions looking at the growth of ground-mount and rooftop solar, and how they fit into the wider decarbonisation picture.
The Lighting up COP26 programme brought together leaders for three discussions, with an opening speech from Solar Energy’s CEO Chris Hewett, which highlighted that we have entered a “virtuous cycle” wherein the more solar is built the cheaper it becomes, encouraging further growth.
Hosted in Energy UK and RenewableUK’s Energy Transition Hub sponsored by RES, the sessions touched on key boons to solar – such as changes to business rates and the benefits to biodiversity – as well as the challenges its facing in the context of the global supply chain.
Solar Power Portal listened into the sessions to hear more on how power prices are driving solar growth and what narritive shift needs to occur to help it go even further.
Investors want to see co-located solar and storage
One of the key conclusions of the first session, was the desire from investors for co-located solar and storage projects in the UK.
“Investors will want to see combined renewables, whether that’s co-location or hybrids,” said Lucy Whitford, managing director of development and construction for UK & I at RES. “We’ve got to innovate as well, to bring the investors [into the sector].”
This is particularly boosted in the solar sector, as investors have an underlying understanding of the PV market now, added Ross Grier, managing director at NextEnergy Capital. As such, it’s easier to build innovative solutions – such as co-location – on top of the underlying business case for solar PV, as it provides a level of comfort for investors.
While investors are increasingly confident about solar PV, people in general are still largely unaware of the benefits, according to Sam Cranston, director of Energy Infrastructure at Copper Consultancy. More work needs to be done to communicate these, for example the biodiversity benefits of utility scale solar, which people are often unaware of.
A further benefit of solar is how the generation curve matches up with the demand curve of electric vehicles (EVs) noted Toddington Harper, CEO of GRIDSERVE. As such, solar can help minimise the impact of vehicle charging on the grid going forwards, and lower the cost of charging for consumers.
The cost of solar has dropped by over 90% in the last decade, increasing its attractiveness for use at EV charging stations amongst others. If it can scale to meet the 40GW target Solar Energy UK has called for, it could meet 10% of the UK’s demand by 2030, even with the growth in EVs leading to higher overall electricity demand.
Overall, the panel praised the government’s Net Zero Strategy for the certainty it provides for decarbonisation in the UK. Grier noted that while its easy to be pessimistic about such policy documents, “having a plan is a great step” as it provides the sector with the clarity.
Cranston agreed, adding that going forwards, “the devil [will be] in the detail”, as how the strategy will be delivered is further expanded on.
Changing solar’s narrative
In the second session of the day, the Climate Change Committee’s chairman Lord Deben called on the solar sector to change its narrative.
He warned that the sector can get caught up in the technicalities of solutions, but that it needs to develop a vernacular that would allow it to reach a much wider group of the population.
Instead of focusing on the technicalities you have to tell the story of it, he said, showing how solar fits into the lives of people.
“I end by saying, I ban the phrase kilowatt hour in climate change” said Lord Deben, continuing to note that the phrase generally means nothing to people. There needs to be a focus on something physical and tangible when promoting solar instead.
The next step for solar is “to get people to love it, in a way you only do if you have a better story”.
He too welcomed the Net Zero Strategy – which largely follows recommendations made previously by the CCC – but he highlighted challenges within the system that have left some areas lacking in detail.
In particular, land use – which will be key for the rollout of utility scale solar – was lacking due to the siloed nature of government meaning it is managed by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rather than the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The planning system for land has not been updated to consider the UK's net zero pledge, which often throws a spanner in the works of the development of renewables as well as being part of the reason the Cumbrian coal development has gotten as far as it has, said Lord Deben.
It’s not that people are wicked, he added, “it’s simply that we have a structure that hasn’t caught up” with net zero.
Keeping up with demand for rooftop solar
In the final session of the day, the panel focused on the burgeoning rooftop solar market, which has seen demand surge over recent years. This has been impacted by a number of factors, including people focusing on home improvements following the pandemic.
Consumer sentiment is very favourable for rooftop solar, aided by the development of the technology which has become more aesthetic as well as more efficient and affordable in recent years noted John Southern, head of product development and strategy at HBS Group.
In recent months, volatile power prices – which are set to remain high through winter – have also increased the interest in rooftop solar. Jason Howlett, managing director of Segen explained that high prices had accelerated the adoption of solar, pushing those already contemplating the technology to take the plunge.
John Roper, senior renewable energy consultant at EvoEnergy agreed, adding that it has been the “shot in the arm”, the additional extra push companies and individuals have needed to adopt solar. In particular for businesses, the static nature of power prices when you have a power purchase agreement (PPA) or similar provides businesses with a welcome level of certainty, derisking their future operations.
The interest in rooftop solar is likely to grow further in coming months, aided by the changes to business rates announced recently by chancellor Rishi Sunak in his Autumn Budget.
It is just one example of how legislation has changed to produce a more favourable environment. While it is not the only driver of solar, “legislation is now something that is supporting solar rather than hampering it, as we’ve seen before” as Southern noted.
Whilst barriers to rooftop solar have undoubtedly been overcome, helping to sector to grow with installations hitting a new record high of 97MW in Q3 2021, numerous challenges remain, in particular around the supply chain and the availability of the workforce.
This is being felt globally, with Howlett noting that “this year has been like no other” with everything having been thrown at the solar sector’s supply chain. A shortage of polysilicon amidst a number of other challenges, has led to a shortage of panels and an increase in the cost of solar PV.
Meanwhile in the UK, the solar sector must band together to increase training options, making full use of apprentice schemes and other pathways to ensure growth is not stymied by a lack of trained solar engineers and installers.
You can watch the full Lighting up COP26 sessions below: