Lightsource Solar Farm
Sunnica Energy Farm decision delayed by UK government to June 2024. Image: Lightsource bp

The UK government has once again delayed a decision on the 500MW solar-plus-storage Sunnica Energy Farm until 20 June 2024.

This announcement marked the fourth delay of an application decision for this solar farm, with an original decision expected to have been made in late September 2023.

The project, which is deemed a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) due to a generation output exceeding 50MW, aims to construct a large-scale solar farm and co-located battery storage asset in Sunnica East and Sunnica West on the Suffolk-Cambridgeshire border.

The site also aims to include three 132kV private substations, and a 132kV cable route will need to be laid to connect the site to the Burwell National Grid Substation. Horizontal Directional Drilling will create the 16 kilometres of cabling required, as it may cross challenging infrastructure such as train lines and dual carriageways.

Due to being an NSIP, the secretary of state, Claire Coutinho, must decide whether to grant a development consent order (DCO) for the project.

The most recent previous delay on this application was announced in March 2024 and saw Coutinho say the decision was made “without prejudice to the decision on whether to grant or refuse development consent”.

As it stands, neither Coutinho nor the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) has commented on why this delay has occured.

Paying the NSIP application dues

It is a widely understood issue in the UK’s renewable energy sector that the process for applying for and developing an NSIP is longer and more arduous than necessary.

The current process involves six key stages. These include pre-application, acceptance, pre-examination, examination, recommendation and decision, and post-decision. The process is conducted by the Planning Inspectorate, a government agency which became responsible for NSIPs under the Localism Act in 2011.

Last year, the government announced its intention to reform the NSIP process and outlined several reasons why it is needed.

One such reason was the increase in the average length of time for a case to reach a decision, as seen with Sunnica Energy Farm. The government said that DCOs increased by 65% between 2012 and 2021 from 2.6 to 4.2 years.

Moreover, last month (March 2024), Suffolk County Council called for greater transparency and fairness for communities when developing large-scale solar projects.

This was due to new plans for the White Elm Solar Farm, which will be located across Mendlesham, Wickham Skeith and Thwaite and have a generation capacity of 200MW making it an NSIP.