In October 2023, the Scottish government announced that its upcoming Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan will commit to a deployment ambition of at least 4GW but up to 6GW of solar power by 2030 – potentially an increase of current solar generation capacity by a factor of 10.
This represents not only a huge opportunity for the solar energy sector in Scotland to scale up but also for local communities to benefit from the resulting increased investment and development. How will the Scottish government balance the pivotal requirement of attracting sufficient investment to achieve its ambitions with the need to ensure that local communities see real benefit from greatly increased solar development?
The Scottish government’s current position regarding community benefit from onshore renewable energy developments “Good Practice Principles for Community Benefits from Onshore Renewable Energy Developments” (the Good Practice Principles) was published in 2019. Community benefit schemes are voluntary arrangements entered into by renewable energy developers and are not a material consideration in the planning process. In our view, despite not being legally binding, solar developers will endeavour to develop in accordance with best practice and accordingly will be highly attuned to the Scottish government’s position on what constitutes best practice.
The current Good Practice Principles were published several years prior to the government’s announcement of the commitment to scale up deployment in solar generation and after a period of rapid growth in the deployment of onshore wind generation in Scotland. The Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan was published in January 2023 and stated that the Good Practice Principles are to be updated and that there will be consultation on new draft guidance in 2023.
Such consultation has not yet commenced but we anticipate that the solar industry in Scotland will be keen to put its views across to ensure that the differences between onshore wind developments and solar developments are reflected in the updated principles.
The current Good Practice Principles promote community benefits of a value equivalent to £5,000 per installed megawatt per annum, index linked for the operational lifetime of the project. Given the considerable differences between the economic models for onshore wind projects and solar developments, it is open to question whether it will be possible for the Scottish government to achieve its ambition regarding solar developments while continuing to promote monetary community benefit at this level.
We are aware of industry concerns that the promotion of community benefits to this value may make solar developments unviable. Solar developers can often point to other, non-monetary community benefits that result from solar development including (a) the potential biodiversity net gain resulting from solar developments and (b) the ways in which solar developments can be carried out in a way that minimises local disruption and visual impact on the environment. Some developers are concerned that such features are not given sufficient weight.
The position reached by the Scottish government on the updated Good Practice Principles will have a material impact on the scaling up of solar energy generation in Scotland and on whether it can achieve its deployment ambition. It is hoped that there will be wide engagement with the upcoming consultation to ensure that an outcome is reached that makes Scotland an attractive place for the development of solar energy schemes while ensuring that the communities in which the development takes place see wide benefit.