It’s not just the government that is proving to be prohibitive when it comes to installing ground-mounted solar in the UK. Given the prevalent capacity issues, an affordable connection in areas such as the south west can be just as rare as Conservative Party support for renewables.

But Western Power, the distribution network operator tasked with managing the grid for the midlands, south Wales and the south west, is tackling capacity issues in a multitude of different ways. Ben Godfrey, innovation and low carbon networks engineer at Western Power, spoke to Solar Power Portal about revisiting stagnant projects and how developers can best work with DNOs on connection applications.

How is Western Power looking to resolve grid capacity issues, particularly in the south west?

As with any area where we have constraints on the network we're formulating reinforcement plans and undertaking as much reinforcement as we can where the funding allows that to be apportioned back to those new applicants that are awaiting connection to the grid. Some of these large-scale reinforcements do take a little bit of time, so I guess it's making sure everyone in that queue is making progress and making sure that they are moving their projects towards energisation and commissioning on there so we don't have any capacity in there which is being unused. We're looking at projects and making sure they are demonstrating progression to us, and the types of things we mean by progression are things like making sure they have planning consent and legal permissions in order to operate on the land and when we get further into the milestones in terms of breaking ground and energisation we make sure that they've got the materials and equipment ordered and ready for the progression so they can make that connection work.

How much is that a case of the DNO being proactive, and how much does it have to be written into connection contracts?

It's a little bit of both actually. We realised that this could potentially be an issue, we had some projects that were taking a long time to go through planning permission and we didn't really have much recourse specifically mentioned in the contract in order to demonstrate progression. We added some further terms into our standard connection agreements, so the companies have to demonstrate progression throughout the contract and typical milestones we would require companies to meet in terms of getting their connection, so 12 months for breaking ground and 18 months for energisation from acceptance of their connection offer. Part of our proactive approach was to change our Ts & Cs to make sure they were fully watertight and everyone understood the expectation of progression after acceptance.

After that we're now taking a more proactive approach in areas where we have got identifiable strengths, certainly in the SW and other areas, and just making sure there aren't any stagnated projects in there that may wish to rescind their capacity. We're having an open and honest dialogue with customers that are in the queue to make sure they're willing to progress and where they are, and we will rescind their connection offer.

Has there been any push back from developers or have they largely welcomed this?

We carried out a consultation, an open one across the board with all of our key customer stakeholders and a number of the large trade associations. We asked a number of questions and one of them was about milestones and demonstrations of progression, and there was a mixed reception to that. We obviously understand that particularly wind projects do take much longer to progress from concept through to energisation than solar projects. A typical wind project may take three years to go through whereas a solar project can be up and running in three months, so depending on which technologies the companies are targeting then they can be rather pro or against the milestones. What we've tried to do with our guidance is to try and offer some milestones that we think should be manageable within the market, but also where there are specific circumstances where customers are making progression but it's slower than what they initially anticipated. We're not going to rip their connection agreements up and ask them to rescind their capacity, and we'll work with them to make sure sufficient progression is made and we can still keep those agreements in place.

How does the cancellation process work, is it a warning first or an immediate rescinding?

It's much more open and transparent and equal than that. Throughout the whole period we're in constant contact with the key project manager or person responsible for that connection offer, so periodically we revisit them and ask them how they're progressing so we have a deeper understanding of their timescale. Once any of those milestones are broken we then go back to them and ask them for any particular evidence they may be able to provide as to the types of progression that they have made. It'll only be on the case that it's patently obvious that there hasn't been any progression made, that they haven't made the necessary steps that we will rescind it, but we certainly wouldn't do that without consultation and agreement with the customer that they're willing to give up that capacity.

Have there been many incidences of this occurring?

Certainly. Where we have had quite a few connections where we've agreed with the customer that they’ve either been refused planning at the second time or they have other sites that are more lucrative in the area so are more of a going concern, so in those circumstances we have had a number of circumstances where it's been mutually agreed with the customer that it's not in their best interest to pursue that connection offer.

Would it be fair to say that these deadline cliffs aren't particularly great for the management of the grid?

In some circumstances having those deadlines is good for the grid because it enables deadlines to be made in a timely manner, but what it does mean is the volumes we have to deliver throughout the year can sometimes be very heavy in those particular periods so it does put added stress and strain on our delivery programmes because they tend to be very centred around particular times of the year. What we do do is have a decent dialogue with customers and make sure those ones that can progress earlier than the final drop-dead date then please do so, and we also make it clear to customers they aren't the only people on our books. It would be impractical for us to be able to offer every single person a connection the week before 31 March, it's just not possible for us to deliver that.

Are there any other ways Western Power are looking at freeing up some grid capacity?

Certainly we've done quite a lot of work over the last year or 18 months on generating alternative connections. These, where we've had operational constraints in the network, are able to free up operational capacity either by using the available capacity that is not used by peak-PV – where we've got purely solar-dominated networks – we've realised there is capacity available outside of the peak PV hours so we're allowing customers to come on in a kind-of timed connection that means they're only able to export when the PV isn't exporting. We've also rolled out active network management across a number of our different areas, which take a real-time view of how the network's operating and then if there's an under utilisation of the capacity by existing generators we allow generators further down the line to connect by issuing a real-time signal to let them understand how much capacity is available to them.

I guess the case for developers is that it's far better to be as open as possible with their DNOs and open to any kind of management that can be done?

Exactly, and this management may not necessarily be enduring. It could just be a short-term measure that whilst we are carrying out significant reinforcement – all the time on our network – it may be that the management of the connection is only valid for a limited period of time and once the reinforcement has been completed then they can transfer off to a full connection.

Connections are guided by the regulator. It's right that there should be some variance in the connection fees and it should be market driven, so that where the connection fees are highest it's probably the area that should be less suitable for generation. We do try and give some guidance to customers as to where the constraints on our networks are using heat maps and different figures in our long-term development statement that we give to inform customers. Those areas that are most free of constraints should be cheapest and quickest to get connections in. That means that the generation is equally spread out across the country and means we're not concentrating all our reinforcement efforts in one particular patch that may not necessarily be the best cost for the UK as a whole.