Common sense tells us that a nation like the UK, famous for its drizzly climate and overcast skies, would struggle to be considered a global solar superpower. Yet, current deployment rates, national targets, and investment, suggest that’s where we are headed.

In fact, our solar sector is booming, with 15.8GW currently deployed and aims to achieve 70GW by 2035 (a near five-fold increase from where we are now). Whilst an ambitious target, it too is achievable when you consider the scale of the UK’s solar industry today, which saw a record-breaking increase in rooftop solar in 2023.

Becoming a leader in the solar race

Anyone who has enjoyed a British summer can tell you that countries like Australia have a clear advantage to the UK in the solar race – sunshine. With its sunny climate – and in turn, high levels of irradiation – it’s no wonder solar became economical very early on.

The country’s early-mover status saw solar become a staple in Australia’s households, with one in every three homes hosting solar on its roof and putting the country on the map for one of the highest penetration rates of household solar.

Today however, Australia’s solar sector has been slowing. A recent report by the Clean Energy Council pointed to a solar downturn in Australia in 2023. The report quoted ‘particularly poor’ investment in large-scale plants resulting in financial approvals for new solar farms shrinking more than a third.

Recent figures suggest that the Australian government’s ‘Powering Australia’ plan is starting to turn the tide, but 2030 targets to deliver an additional 32GW of renewable capacity are in doubt, with only five projects reaching financial commitment in Q1 this year, totaling 895MW of new capacity.

What’s enabling the UK’s sunny outlook?

Solar energy is the cheapest and most abundant energy source available today.

This makes solar the obvious focus for clean energy investment worldwide, reflected in its rise from US$127 billion in 2013 to US$382 billion by 2023 and surpassing all other generation technologies combined.

However, many won’t find it hard to believe that the UK’s solar potential took longer to catch on. With its lower irradiation rate, the UK had to wait longer than sunny nations like Australia for the cost of solar to reduce to a level where deploying it was economic.

In the last few years, the UK experienced record energy costs, with bills soaring due to high inflation and geopolitical tensions with Russia following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This peaked in 2022, with household energy bills reaching their highest in the last 50 years. These price hikes, and the resulting cost of living crisis, brought to light how vulnerable the British energy system is to changes in the global fossil fuel market. As a result, energy security has become a major focus for UK citizens, policymakers, and businesses, resulting in a shifting narrative and focus on home-grown renewables.

These key trends have led to a positive outlook for the UK’s solar deployment. Innovation and investment have meant the cost of solar energy has been on a continuous downward trend, dropping nearly 90% from 2013 to 2023.

Policy momentum is also growing, as the UK government looks to form a UK Solar Taskforce, with a Roadmap to 70GW soon to be published. Not to mention, with an election on the horizon, we have seen even more ambition, as the likes of the Labour Party aim to bring forward the nation’s clean energy targets by five years to 2030, become a clean energy superpower, and create a national utility company called Great British Energy.

Pairing our national ambition with the global investment and innovation landscape, there is huge potential for UK solar to continue to punch well above its weight – even when compared to nations whose conditions for solar may look like they outrank our own.

The status-quo in Australia

Looking across the globe, despite its slower growth last year, Australia is also deploying solar at an impressive pace. The country currently has an average of 2.5 solar panels per Australian, and small-scale rooftop solar panel systems outperformed coal to supply a record-breaking 14% of the nation’s energy requirements during the summer of 2022/23. Its recent ‘Energy Savings Package’ also aims to deliver more than $1.6 billion for energy saving efficiency upgrades, including solar, to reenergise its green industry.

Whilst both nations are focused on their solar goals, the UK’s commitment to renewables has enabled it to punch above its weight, but it must continue to capitalise on investment and focus on the renewables revolution if it is to compete.

The role of businesses in securing our solar future

As we look to our net zero future, businesses in the UK are playing an essential role, with 44% implementing a climate action plan and the most popular actions being taken focused around energy saving measures, including increased use of renewable energy, like solar (48%). And the potential for commercial rooftop solar in the UK is huge, with nearly 2.5 billion square meters of south facing commercial rooftops in the UK.

Indeed, some of the largest businesses in the country are already taking advantage of this potential, powering operations through renewable energy. The opportunity to do so is, in many cases, made possible, and financially viable, through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs).

According to Bloomberg, a record number of businesses across Europe utilised PPAs last year, with the volume in Europe growing 74% as businesses combatted energy price hikes through long-term, affordable clean energy contracts that offer control over origin, pricing, and supply. Atrato’s work with businesses like Tesco, M&S and Britvic has seen them clean up their power generation and reduce bills by 20-30% per year.

Securing our clean energy future

Today, solar has become a no-brainer when it comes to cutting emissions and energy costs, for countries with and without a sunny reputation. This is particularly true in the UK, where the country’s solar trajectory for both residential and commercial rooftop – underpinned by increased investment, regulatory frameworks and impressive innovation – has the potential to rival the world’s sunniest nations like Australia.

Whilst one might notice the UK’s solar growth across the residential sector, the UK’s sheer potential to capture commercial rooftop solar is what will put the UK on the global stage as a solar superpower. Through PPAs, businesses are in an exceptionally strong position to capture the potential and reap the benefits of running on cleaner and cheaper UK energy, whilst boosting the country’s renewable capacity.

With targets and deployment at a similar scale to the sun-kissed coasts of Australia, the UK and its businesses are poised to push for the title of global solar superpower.