Dr Alan Whitehead speaking at the UK Solar Summit today. Image: Solar Media

Dr Alan Whitehead speaking at the UK Solar Summit today. Image: Solar Media

Labour Party Shadow Minister for Energy and the Green New Deal Dr Alan Whitehead opened the second day of the UK Solar Summit, hosted by our publisher Solar Media, to lay out Labour’s vision for the solar and renewable sectors. 

Whitehead has been Labour Party Shadow Minister for Energy and the Green New Deal since 2015. In the time he has held this post, many energy ministers have come and gone, but something that hasn’t changed in that time is the urgency of policy interventions that will decarbonise our economy. 

“Solar, quite simply, is central to our low carbon plans as a new Labour government. I’ve been Labour’s shadow energy minister since 2015 so I’ve had a long history, unlike actual energy ministers, in staying in post and trying to advance the cause of decarbonisation in the energy sector,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead said his experience had given him a “very clear view of what we need to do as far as solar is concerned for the future, because one thing we absolutely cannot do is have more of the stop start policies we’ve had over the previous years.”

“Number one, a new Labour government would seek to introduce a stable investment and deployment environment for solar for the future,” Whitehead said.

Given the success of solar despite all the problems affecting the sector, Whitehead continued, “if solar actually had a benign investment environment and a government that was committed to ensuring solar played that central role, what could we achieve together?”

Whitehead said he wanted to build on the 2.2GW of solar secured under the last Contracts for Difference (CfD) round, which would be a key element of Labour’s goal of decarbonising the power grid by 2030.

Last week, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer announced more details of his party’s plan to produce more clean energy. The plan includes three concrete steps:

  • To create a new National Wealth Fund
  • To reform the CfD scheme
  • To create a “new home-grown energy company… like Ørsted in Denmark and Vattenfall in Sweden”

Whitehead said that their GB Energy company would be able to work with Transmission and Distribution operators to speed up investment in the grid in order to meet the 2030 target.

Labour hopes to reach around 45-50GW of solar by 2030, Whitehead said, with 10GW of hydrogen, some nuclear and some “further from market” sources. 

“Can it be done, is the question?” said Whitehead. “It’s going to be very difficult, it’s a real moonshot challenge, it will require a huge amount of government and industrial support to make it happen. What we want to see is something like a fourfold increase in offshore wind to something like 55-60GW, we want to see onshore wind doubled, and particularly as far as solar is concerned at least a tripling of solar so we have 45-50GW of solar installed.”

Taken together, this would produce “pretty much a decarbonised sector with gas on the margins and moving out to a reserve function in the years after that,” Whitehead said. “We’ve really got to get going with hugely increased annual deployment outcomes as far as allocation rounds are concerned.”

“One thing we can say as far as a future Labour government is concerned,” Whitehead said, “is that we will make sure we value allocation rounds for CfDs and we will make sure the ceilings within those rounds are commensurate with the ambitions we want to put forward.“

“I would say the sort of ambition I would expect solar to undertake would be at least 5GW of successful allocation for solar in each allocation round leading up to 2030. One thing of course in terms of creating that benign environment for investment is that we would guarantee that that would be the path we go down for all years to 2030 so there would be a stable and non variable investment and deployment environment leading up to that period,” Whitehead said.

On setting up a nationalised GB Energy company, Whitehead said that the irony of our present system was that two thirds of investment in renewables in the UK is in the hands of the state, but “unfortunately not our state, someone else’s government. So we need to turn that around so it is our company which is investing in, holding equity in, guiding and supporting, lowering the cost of capital and increasing security in those investments over this period.”

Whitehead said GB Energy would be able to partner with solar investors to “bring some of the biggest and most difficult projects to fruition.” GB Energy would also support and enhance community and municipal low carbon developments at a local level. Whitehead said he had worked with many community developers and knows how difficult that process is.

“At one end we have large solar fields going ahead, getting much better results at allocation rounds, perhaps GB Energy involved in supporting their deployment, and at the other end GB Energy supporting community solar and similar low carbon developments at the municipal and community end,” Whitehead added.

GB Energy would not be a vehicle for nationalisation, Whitehead noted, but would seek to work with the private sector to speed up the deployment of projects in the pipeline. 

Lastly, although Labour recently scaled back plans to borrow £28 billion a year to invest in the green transition, Whitehead reiterated that a Labour government would be looking to invest around £28 billion a year to achieve its green targets.

Whitehead is obviously a careful and knowledgeable politician whose understanding of the renewables industry reassures the sector that a Labour government would create the kind of stable economic climate for investment that is needed. Whether or not they can achieve their ambitious targets is yet to be seen, and as the Climate Change Committee reminded us today, ambitious targets are one thing, but action is another.