Ben Heatley, Managing Partner of Copper Consultancy discusses solar energy’s potential to deliver substantive change for the UK’s energy system, ahead of the release of the latest Attitudes to Infrastructure report.
The transition to net zero is underway, and its effects are beginning to be felt, nowhere more so than in our energy system.
The outcome of the ScotWind bidding process, which in time will see 25GW of offshore wind power come online, demonstrates that big, ambitious projects that can deliver large scale change are coming forward. The Government also recently passed the Nuclear Financing Bill, Sizewell C is making progress, and Rolls-Royce SMR are in Dubai at the World Future Energy Summit, demonstrating that nuclear energy has a crucial role to play in providing reliable baseload generation.
These technologies and projects will become the trunk roads in our journey to a low carbon economy. But like major motorway projects, they will take substantial amounts of time and resource to plan, build and bring into operation.
The future may well be dominated by large scale generation, but in the meantime, we need to deliver change far more immediately.
That is where solar projects can play an invaluable role. By comparison to other grid-scale energy generation, they can be rolled out quickly, efficiently and with minimal environmental impact. In fact, as the UK seeks to change its approach to land management and farming, and we shift the emphasis from volume production to environmental value, solar schemes can be a net-positive, enabling wildlife to flourish on previously monocultured agricultural land.
For the UK to reach its net zero target, solar will have to triple the contribution it makes to UK energy supplies by 2030. That is going to inevitably mean a boom in new sites, facilitated by the increased viability of large scale projects, and solar now being included by BEIS in the Draft National Policy Statement for Renewable Energy.
So there is a clear need for solar expansion, the viability of solar projects is improving, there is a strong environmental case, and the policy landscape is becoming far clearer. This will pave the way for schemes to progress more straightforwardly through the planning process.
What could possibly stand in the way of such seemingly obvious progress?
Well, in short, people and politics.
At an individual project level, there will be a wide range of issues that can cause problems, from localised environmental factors to heritage and, of course, the availability of grid connections. But the universal factor that will influence a project’s outcome will be the reaction to increasing proportions of available agricultural land being given over to solar panels and substations.
As with onshore wind fifteen years ago, there will potentially be a tipping point where the spread of solar projects across the country becomes a topic of media debate and political discussion, when the policy environment may well become far less supportive.
But there are lessons that we can learn from previous experiences. Notably, there is an opportunity to shape – as well as be influenced by – public opinion. If the solar industry is able to engage with communities, stakeholders and influencers early, and help educate them about the various benefits of solar schemes, it may be possible to avoid some of the problems that befell onshore wind developers.
In order to start that process of engagement and education, it’s critical to first understand what the public really think, what their aspirations and concerns are. That’s why Copper has worked in partnership with Solar Energy UK to undertake the first national research specifically into public perceptions of solar projects, and the findings will be released on Thursday.
Without wishing to give too much away, there are some really positive pieces of news, including that, in abstract terms at least, the British public supports solar, and those who live close to existing solar projects are far more likely to become more supportive of, rather than more negative towards, them. However, it’s clear that the level of public awareness remains low, and people still tend to exaggerate the potential impacts of solar schemes and underestimate the benefits.
As most people working in the industry know, we are at a unique moment where policy, price and national political support are all coming together to support a boom in solar energy. But as the respondents to our survey correctly recognised, local public opinion or probably more precisely public objections, still have the potential to stop this train in its tracks.
Despite majority support for solar around the country, a vocal, well organised and politically connected minority can have a major impact upon an individual scheme and even on national policy.
It’s therefore critical that the opportunity to achieve a Decade of Solar is realized, and that must start with establishing a meaningful conversation with communities and stakeholders around the UK.