Following a tumultuous 2022, the Government’s new Energy Security Plan was a hugely welcome ray of sunshine for the solar industry. Solar Energy UK’s senior communications adviser Gareth Simkins reflects on the transformation of attitudes in Downing Street.
Working past midnight for the fourth day in a row last autumn, trying to save the solar sector, the extraordinary support that the Government is now lending it would have been impossible to imagine.
It’s fair to say that 2022 was a mixed year for the solar industry. Rooftop installations rose at pace, as the energy price crisis continued to bite on household bills. At the same time, the skills shortage and Covid-related supply chain restrictions threatened the UK’s ability to keep up with demand. Meanwhile, several NSIP-scale solar farms projects were announced, most notably the 840MW Botley West development, in the Blenheim Estate.
But this was threatened by the newly appointed Prime Minister Liz Truss' less-than-sympathetic attitudes towards solar.
Already known as being less than enthused by solar farms, Truss decided to have a cheap shot at them during her summer campaign to lead the Conservative Party. “I’m somebody who wants to see farmers producing food, not filling in forms, not doing red tape, not filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms. What we want is crops, and we want livestock,” Truss told a party gathering in Darlington.
Solar Energy UK had already responded to such rhetoric by then, stating that there was strong support for solar farms from both the general public and Conservative members. We also reminded the Government that backing solar was clearly in the country’s economic interest.
In the first week of October, we learned that Truss’ words were being backed by action, representing a fundamental threat to the future of the entire ground-mount sector. Its effective end would have a knock-on impact for rooftop installers, too.
The new Environment Secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, who shared Truss’ views on solar farms, was seeking to change the agricultural land classification system. This would have extended the ‘best and most versatile’ (BMV) planning protections placed on the best quality land to more middling grade 3b land, home to most solar farms. His predecessor George Eustice had the same idea in mind, although Eustice explained his comments away as a simple error..
Had it gone through, Jayawardena’s plan would have been truly disastrous. But we weren’t going to take it lying down. So within days, the solar sector had built a coalition ranging from the Labour front bench to right-wing think tanks, bolstered by environmental groups, investors and Conservative MPs. The then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy and Conservative MP for North Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg also defended the solar industry, indicating severe dissent within the Cabinet.
A week later, Truss resigned in the wake of an economic crisis.
Although the immediate threat had abated, it had not been extinguished. A month later, replacement Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey hinted that BMV reform was still on the cards, contrary to previous indications to the contrary. There were also worries that Rishi Sunak’s own comments on solar farms, similar to those of Truss, would still filter down into policy.
Fortunately, this has proven not to be the case. In fact, it’s quite the reverse: no government has been so enthusiastic about solar since Gordon Brown introduced feed-in tariffs. Responding to the Skidmore Review and the quashing of the Net Zero Strategy, the new Energy Security Plan and its accompanying papers are littered with positive comments about solar.
“The UK has huge deployment potential for solar power,” the paper states, adding that, “We need to maximise deployment,” on the ground and rooftops to meet the goal of having 70GW in place by 2035. Rooftop, in particular, “remains a key priority for the Government,” says the paper.
Although we knew this some time ago, the Energy Security Plan also emphasises that BMV reform has been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the window.
“We consider that meeting energy security and climate change goals is urgent and of critical importance to the country, and that these goals can be achieved together with maintaining food security for the UK,” says the plan.
“We encourage deployment of solar technology that delivers environmental benefits, with consideration for ongoing food production or environmental improvement. The Government will therefore not be making changes to categories of agricultural land in ways that might constrain solar deployment.”
The plan also recognises the potential for rooftop deployment on warehouses and other industrial and commercial properties, seeking to “facilitate and promote extensive deployment”. The Warehousing Association believes that its sector alone could host 15GW of capacity, roughly double what the entire UK has in place.
The paper even cited Solar Energy UK’s work, specifically the Solar Skills London programme, which addresses the skills gap by delivering training and work placements in the industry, while encouraging young people to join it. More broadly, a Net Zero Skills and Workforce Action Plan is due next year, which will address the kind of workforce challenges that have affected us all.
But how will these warm words be fulfilled, aside from a promise to run annual Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions?
The government is working on facilitating the availability of low-cost finance from retail lenders for rooftop solar energy on homes and small businesses. This was one of Chris Skidmore’s recommendations and is something that the solar industry has sought for years.
There were, of course, many supporting papers issued on the same day. A new draft national policy statement for renewables (EN-3) was the biggest of these papers, covering NSIP-scale solar projects.
Solar Energy UK is still analysing how it has changed from a previous draft issued in 2021, although indications are positive. Most notably, we welcome the retention of a language stating that land type should not be a predominating factor for determining site suitability.
A consultation is also open on liberalising permitted development rights for solar. The most important aspects are removing the one-megawatt threshold for non-domestic buildings, allowing front-facing installations in conservation areas, and enabling the construction of solar canopies over car parks.
Meanwhile, the Government is getting its house in order, through pending guidance on installing solar on its own properties and the wider public sector estate.
We still await confirmation of what precisely the Future Homes Standard will require for new homes, pending the opening of another consultation. There are worries that compliance could be achieved simply through installing a heat pump alone, neglecting the benefits of coupling them with solar. This ultimately means higher bills for consumers.
The details of such measures will be largely the role of the promised Solar Taskforce, expected to be co-chaired by our CEO Chris Hewett and energy minister Graham Stuart. Further details on this initiative will emerge shortly. But resolving the grid access challenge – perhaps somewhat underplayed in the plan – will surely be one of its key priorities.
On that subject, the Electricity Networks Commissioner Nick Winser has promised to deliver recommendations to halve delivery times for new grid infrastructure, his plans being due in in June.
The solar taskforce will help create a solar roadmap, setting the scene for how 70GW of solar power will be reached by 2035, covering rooftop and ground-mounted sides of the business.
According to the technical annexe to the Energy Security Plan, the combination of solar policies should dramatically impact deployment. In 2030, capacity is projected to be 39GW, only a whisker away from Solar Energy UK’s goal of 40GW. Five years later, it should hit 63GW, again not far off the 70GW ambition set in last year’s Energy Security Strategy. So while there is some way to go yet, it’s certainly encouraging.
Data (in gigawatts)
|Before ‘Green Day’||21||28||42|
|After ‘Green Day’||39||63||90|
|Energy Security Strategy ambition||70|
All told, the situation now is a quantum leap from six months ago. As Solar Energy UK’s CEO Chris Hewett said, the announcement of the taskforce is “a clear indication from the Government that it wants the UK to take full advantage of solar energy’s vast economic potential. We look forward to working closely with ministers to lay the path towards a five-fold increase in solar capacity in the UK by 2035 and addressing the key barriers to unlock the full potential of all scales of solar and energy storage.”
So, while it’s unwise to rest on one’s laurels, it looks like the solarcoaster is on the up for the foreseeable future.