From Aberystwyth to Aberdeen, from Norfolk to Northumberland, from Truro to Trimdon Station: are large-scale solar farms in the UK poised for northerly expansion in 2015?

While there is no doubt that site developers and their respective planners in the UK are active today in (solar farm) zones previously overlooked in the past, will this drive a shift in the dominance of the south for ground-mounted solar farm deployment in the UK during 2015?

First, let’s get a clear picture of what happened last year for solar farm deployment in the UK. Given the six to seven month time lag in government accreditation registers being updated, it is only now that government data is providing an accurate picture of what happened to the end of 2014. Therefore, we are now in a position to source this data directly from publicly available sources and do some meaningful analysis on the trends from last year.

During the calendar year 2014, the UK installed 1.79GW of large-scale (>250kW) ground-mounted solar farms, out of a total of 2.51GW of new solar PV installed. Therefore, being the major component of the country’s annual demand, it is useful to know where this went, and if there are any trends for 2015 and beyond.

There are many ways to address the ‘where’ question. Often this is done simply by the boundaries that make up the various regions (South East, South West, etc.) or purely at the legacy county level (Cornwall, Somerset, etc.).

Furthermore, the split by local planning authorities (LPAs) is important, as this has a major influence depending on the tendencies of the council planning departments. However, even at the LPA level, the picture does not become that clear in terms of geographic deployment, with Cornwall statistics clouding the picture. Often LPA regions simply reflect the footprint covered by the different LPAs and the boundaries drawn between one LPA and another, not the geographic preferences of suppliers.

To address this problem, we have chosen to use Ordnance Survey (OS) grid references for every large-scale ground-mounted site installed in 2014, using the easting and northing geographic Cartesian co-ordinates provided within the above-mentioned, publicly-available government registers, accreditation lists and council planning databases.

Using these data sources, we plotted out the installed (MWp-dc) capacity west-to-east (easterly, or x-axis) and south-to-north (northerly, or y-axis), and grouped this into equally-spaced easterly and northerly bands of 25,000. Finally, we scaled the graphics to match a map of the UK, to show exactly what went on with the 1.79GW of new large-scale solar farms. The figure below shows the trends.

Geographic breakdown of new solar PV capacity arising from new large-scale ground-mounted solar farms (>250kW) during calendar year 2014. Data sources: UK government energy statistics releases and council planning databases.

Going in an easterly direction (lower x-axis plot), the high capacity spikes on the graph capture solar farm installations in Cornwall (in excess of 150MW), Wales (incredibly hitting the 200MW figure for 2014), Devon and Dorset (combined capacity at the 200MW level), Avon and Somerset (150MW level), Wiltshire above 100MW, Oxfordshire (also approaching 150MW), finishing up with spikes arising from Kent, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire (almost 140MW), Essex and finally Suffolk (the last of the 100MW plus counties).

During 2014, many of the counties laid claim to be the ‘solar-capital-of-the-UK’, but purely at the county level, the big three were Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire and Cornwall. But perhaps the broader conclusion is that all across the south of the UK, 2014 was a year of record-breaking solar farm deployment, from Cornwall to Suffolk.

Of much more interest though is the northerly plot. Without even addressing the capacity highs-and-lows of the y-axis plot shown on the figure, the most striking issue is the continued consolidation of new capacity added to the south of the country. In fact 95% of new ground-mounted solar farm capacity in 2014 was located south of Boston in Lincolnshire.

Often, people think this is purely an irradiation issue. But these remarks tend to be somewhat misleading, and are often cited as the most rational explanation to those looking at the UK’s solar industry from overseas. While definitely a factor in the equation, other issues relate to land availability, land cost, grid capacity, site access, the ability to get usable interconnection dates from DNOs, and the willingness of LPAs (not to mention the public) to embrace solar planning applications.

Solar Media’s Solar Intelligence team is currently analysing surveys done by Solar Power Portal over the past few months, to get a full picture of what has happened so far during 2015 (especially Q1’15), and filling in the gaps in government data releases so far this year. The results of this will be available shortly.

Aside from the simple issue of capacity installed in Q1 and Q2’15, it will be interesting to see if there is any notable change in geographic deployment so far, or whether the long-expected northerly expansion will arise during the second half of 2015 or be pushed out to Q1’16 just before the 1.3ROC period comes to a close.