The UK’s ground-mount solar industry has been providing excellent business opportunities for site planners and planning consultants, in the past few years. However, changes by the government to renewable obligations (RO) subsidies available for both the solar industry and the onshore wind industry are now creating a greater number of individual site opportunities across a much wider range of planning firms.

Back in 2011 when there was the brief feed-in tariff-based, ground-mount spike of 5MW sites – mostly driven by Cornwall – only a few planners and planning consultants were up to speed on solar-based application requirements. This rather small subset included Alder King, Landmark Practice, Barton Willmore, Carter Jonas, LDA Design, RPS Group, Laurence Associates, Terence O’Rourke and Wardell Armstrong. At the time the only notable developer with its own in-house planning services was TGC Renewables.  

When the industry moved into RO-based planning and deployment from 2012, the likes of Pegasus and Savills stepped up activity in the sector, and others, led by Lightsource but also including British Solar Renewables, Green Hedge Renewables, Anesco and Inazin Power, began to bring more of the planning capability in-house and not outsourced to third-parties.

Indeed, the growth of solar led many of the planners and planning consultants to create ‘Energy’ or ‘Renewables’ teams within their companies, and staffing was boosted to accommodate the new business growth most were seeing. For many, the dual focus was onshore solar and wind, with offshore wind being in a different category altogether.

In fact, many planners that had been heavily involved in onshore wind applications also made the switch to solar, with plenty of transferrable skills applied to the new technology focus.

But the biggest changes for planners and planning consultants have come in the past 12 months, and many as recent as the last quarter. Here are the key things that have occurred to impact the business opportunities for planners:

  • The May 2014 government changes to 1.3 ROCs set up the fiscal year FY’16 as one in which there would be more planning applications for smaller (sub-5MW) sites.

  • The same government legislation also ensured that appeals for potential grace-compliant projects would see a strong uptick at the end of 2014 and through 2015.

  • Recent government policy announcements to bring forward the end of the RO for onshore wind have had an immediate impact on planners that had been expecting business from the wind sector out to 31-3-17.

Planners now have a much harder task to justify the ongoing existence of newly-created Renewables/Energy teams if onshore RO business was expected to be the major source of revenues. But with solar, as of today’s legislation, still available under RO until 31 March 2017, and being a technology that can see a very short time from screening/scoping to site completion (certainly compared to wind), then the opportunities for planners from the solar industry are still plenty.

The issues for many planners are often knowing where to look, who should I contact, and who are really my customers? Many planners were previously running in reactive mode from the solar sector, typically doing work for just a few developers. Indeed, some were essentially one-client houses – great if your customer is active, not so good if they represent less than 1% of the overall market opportunity.

Another issue is knowing which developers are essentially doing all their own lead in-house planning, albeit subcontracting out for issues such as archaeological surveys or other highly specialised planning requirements.

It may come as a surprise to some that Lightsource is actually the most active planner in the industry today, with almost half of Lightsource’s managed assets now coming from in-house developed sites. The rapid growth of in-house developed assets at Lightsource (compared to developed or completed site acquisitions) is largely due to Lightsource creating back in 2012 what is almost certainly the country’s largest solar planning team.

Aside from in-house planning activity however, over the next 12 months it is likely that the most successful planners will be the ones that can identify and engage with a wider range of clients compared to previous business efforts. As a route into getting CfD-based solar application work also, this may be the most credible approach for many that are still not household planning names within the UK solar community.

As part of its recent key company research activities, undertaken by the Solar Intelligence team at Solar Media, we identified the Top-500 companies across the UK’s large-scale solar farm value-chain. From a planner's perspective, the 180+ project developers is effectively their customer database for solar planning business. Filtering out the developers that have in-house planning capability, and others that are strongly aligned with one or two planners, then there is still a customer target list of about 100 to prospect. To most in the solar business these days, having a pool of 100 potential customers is a great place to be, so there is every reason to expect that the UK solar industry will continue to offer strong business opportunities for planners and consultants in the months and years ahead.