Positive momentum of local authority solar ‘won’t change’ without subsidies

A steady increase in local authority interest in ground-mount solar will not be affected by subsidy cuts, according to a consultant speaking at SEUK today. 

Stephen Cirell, author and consultant on low carbon and renewable energy, said there will be a quieter period while authorities carry out the background work for embarking on solar projects, but councils will be “at the front of the queue” when it comes to the next rush to build solar.

He added: “Despite all of the difficult news, in actual fact, we are remarkably upbeat in relation to solar PV in the public sector.”

Over a period of five years, councils have begun to accept solar and recognise its benefits, therefore it is far easy to persuade decision makers to move forward with a project, said Cirell.

Even though, he said it is “deeply ironic” that financial incentives are on their way out just as momentum is building, he expects a strong future for post-subsidy solar in this sector and he cited the 20 councils that have signed up to the APSE collaboration in order to share the cost of a procurement programme specifically for ground-mount solar deployment.

Despite the ending of the Renewables Obligation support for <5MW capacity plants in March 2016, Cirell said there are strategies for council’s to maintain a business case for solar projects. He cited Bournemouth County Council’s Ashington solar plant that was designed for use with subsidies, but the council is now planning to use a civic hall and a leisure centre located nearby as direct off-takers as a way of generating greater returns without support.

Cirell said that in the difficult period between losing subsidies and the costs of solar coming down enough to reach grid parity, finding similar sites with potential off-takers such as factories is a strategy to make solar economically viable. The use of energy storage during peak tariff periods is another strategy.

Peter Hately, business change manager, Northumberland County Council, said: “I am really confident about the future of major solar projects for local authorities.”

He added that local authorities have some of the best sites for solar in the UK such as landfill sites. Councils also have low borrowing costs and easy access to capital financing. He said the “only reason” there have not been more major solar projects is that solar has not been part of authorities’ core competencies and they are not used to delivering such projects.

Hately also said that a post-subsidy regime could even be beneficial as it would shorten the elongated decision making processes that haunted the planning around projects expecting subsidies.