Can the new Solar Taskforce deliver the policy drivers needed to deliver 70GW by 2035?

Our solar columnist, Dr Sebastian Berry, on the new Solar Taskforce and what it can learn from the UK’s previous solar PV strategy.

It was just over ten years ago that the then Energy Minister Greg Barker MP launched the UK’s first (and to date, only) solar PV roadmap, heralding an intense period of government/industry joint working leading up to the publication of a full solar PV strategy document in 2014.

On publication, the minister’s expressed “target” of delivering 20GW of solar by 2020 had become merely a commitment to achieve that goal by “early in the next decade”. To be charitable, that’s just about where are as we approach 2024, but still leaving just 11 years to deliver the new government solar target of another 50GW or so by 2035.

What are the industry’s chances of success? To be accurate, the new Solar Taskforce’s remit is to deliver a strategic roadmap setting out a “clear step-by-step deployment trajectory to achieve up to 70GW of solar by 2035 (my italics)”.

“Up to” of course is very different to “at least”, but it is still a very demanding target, particularly given ongoing grid and planning delays which can extend currently into the 2030s, and a still underperforming commercial and public sector rooftop market.

Now largely forgotten, that early attempt ten years ago at developing a comprehensive strategy for solar in the UK holds some important lessons for the current government/industry solar taskforce, which is due to report in February 2024.

Challenges ahead

The main challenge is to ensure that after the drafting has ended and the report published, that the joint working (preferably formally through ongoing strategy groups) continues through the implementation phase. Indeed, I’d suggest that is crucial.

Back in 2014, there was a very comprehensive follow up period involving the industry working groups, but sadly that all fizzled out after the 2015 election and the new government’s emphasis on “cutting the green crap”.

As we approach another election year, with a probable change of government, continuity of approach and solar policy delivery will be key. Whether that is achieved through formal working groups or just through the closer working relationships established as part of the Solar Taskforce period, remains to be seen, but it needs addressing.

The backdrop to the two reports is of course very different. Back in 2013, we were emerging from a damaging period of government retrospective policy changes, which triggered important and successful legal action. In addition, for all the positive words in the 2014 report about solar getting cheaper, “cost-reduction” was the first key main challenge facing the sector and at the very top of policy-makers’ list of challenges for solar trade bodies.

Cost reduction

Ten years on, “securing value for money” is still a government priority, but the near 90% reduction in solar pricing in the UK since the earliest days of the sector has clearly lessened the impact of that issue. Joint working with government is also at the very heart of the new Solar Taskforce approach with Solar Energy UK co-chairing it alongside Graham Stewart MP, Minister of State for Energy and Net Zero, and with a core membership which includes EDF, Lightsource BP, Segen and Evo Energy. In addition, five subgroups are meeting regularly covering networks, skills, rooftop solar, supply chains and innovation, and communications.

To be fair to this government, the Autumn Statement and earlier policy decisions have already delivered important changes and key industry asks, which bodes well for the full strategic roadmap due by February 2024. These include allowing developers to pay local authorities for faster planning decisions, and crucially the decision to designate large solar farms as “critical national priority” planning projects. In addition, Solar Energy UK also welcomed the decision to increase the solar administrative strike price in next year’s CfD auction from £47 to £61/MWh, in line with industry asks.

Rooftop solar

Less positively and reflecting a sense of the lost opportunities ten years ago, it’s still the case that the long-term potential of the “mid-sized” commercial and public sector rooftop sector is not being maximised, with general industry concerns about the continued lack of trained installers and the skills gap. This will clearly need to be addressed in detail in the forthcoming strategy.

Overall, however and in contrast to the difficult period immediately before the 2013 Solar Strategy process, there’s a much more positive backdrop to the more detailed work currently informing the strategic roadmap. This suggests that the solar industry has a great opportunity to help put in place the building blocks needed to start getting close to the 2035 target. I’ll come back to this issue after the report is published next year, but in the meantime Solar Energy UK deserves a great deal of credit for facilitating and leading that process.