In April last year, the UK Government launched its British Energy Security Strategy in response to the rise in wholesale energy prices, largely caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One of the key pledges within the Strategy was to increase the UK’s solar capacity by five-fold by 2035, equating to 70GW of generation capacity.
Fast-forward a year later and as part of ‘Green Day’, the Government pledged to establish a joint taskforce to drive the growth of the solar industry in the UK. However, the terms of reference for the new taskforce are set to be laid out.
The commitment to increase solar generation is of course commendable, however, industry requires structure and direction if it is to meet the 2035 target. A key challenge for the taskforce to address is the UK’s skills gap, and ensuring we have the workforce to make our solar dreams a reality.
The sector needs to attract young talent and fast. Research from Ofgem found that a further 6,000 new engineers will be required per year to meet demand. Whilst the number of engineering graduates is steadily increasing, there were 5,340 electrical engineering graduates in 2019 alone, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) highlights that only around 1,000 of these graduates go on to join the industry each year.
It is also vitally important that in our race to train and upskill the workers we need, we do not sacrifice quality over quantity. As it stands, there is no standard accreditation scheme for installers, nor are installers required to have one by law. The UK is lagging behind being able to facilitate the major investment needed in this sector. Our investment in energy transition fell by 10 per cent, from £24.9bn to £23.1bn, from 2021 to 2022, with the Labour Party going as far as to accuse the Government of “actively dismantling” the UK’s solar industry. A statement which seems to be reinforced by the Government’s decision to close the Feed In Tariff (FiT) subsidy scheme.
What inspiration can the UK take from other countries?
The US Government’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) has already launched Solar Workforce development initiatives, as their research suggests they will need to train 1,500,000 workers by 2035 if the Biden-Harris administration is to reach its goal of achieving a fully decarbonised electricity system. These workplace initiatives aim to assess and address the growing needs of the clean energy economy and they are looking to attract workers from different backgrounds and provide them with competitive wages and benefits.
Germany, the EU’s leading country when it comes to solar installation, has recognised the labour gap in their solar market and is working with German renewables companies to combat this. The German Government understands that if they want to meet their 2030 deadline of achieving 80 per cent renewable energy, they need to look for different solutions to achieve it. From looking to boost immigration, to offering 90 per cent subsidies for people training as heat pump specialists.
While there will always be the need for graduates joining the workforce, the number coming through will not plug the hole we currently have. To do so, the UK should take inspiration from the likes of the US and Germany on this issue and build a diverse workforce from other areas.
There is also a need for industry to play its part to ensure that the UK does not fall behind our competitors when it comes to training and upskilling solar installers. Companies need to be prepared to pay the wage installers deserve. Moreso, the sector needs to make the practicalities of these roles sound attractive, which is crucial in today’s post-covid work landscape, where flexible working is becoming the norm.
With our Net Zero targets fast approaching, the demand for solar energy is there, we just need the workforce to match it.
Sophie Lamb is head of solar at YLEM Energy, which designs, builds, operates and maintains on-site energy systems for energy intensive businesses.