What next for the UK solar coaster?

solar panels on newbuild house
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Our new solar columnist, Dr Sebastian Berry, on the sector’s buoyancy and the journey to achieving the government’s target of 70GW by 2035.

It’s been a successful and positive year for the UK solar PV sector to date, which begs the question, has the UK’s unpredictable “solar coaster” finally ended? During the frantic feed-in tariff period after 2010, it became fashionable to describe life in the UK’s burgeoning solar sector as the business equivalent of riding a giant roller coaster, only usually a lot less fun.

As then head of public affairs at Solarcentury, I lost count of the solar coaster policy dips, twists and turns, and the highs and lows of that exciting but also frustrating and unpredictable period.  At times, the policy u-turns and a lack of certainty, made business planning and investment almost impossible, first generating huge interest in the technology, then leaving some companies with little choice but to get out of solar PV altogether or to make skilled installers redundant. This was not the way to establish a sustainable sector or to manage properly the transition to a standalone industry in the UK, one that would later take advantage of the huge reductions in solar PV pricing which were to be delivered from 2010.

Buoyant sector

More than ten years on, and with solar PV now firmly established as the cheapest renewable technology in the UK, many would argue that the early solar coaster struggles of the UK’s then fledgling solar sector are largely irrelevant to today’s comparatively buoyant, self-confident, growing sector.

In September, the UK solar rooftop sector surpassed 138,000 installations during 2023, already a “post-subsidy” record for the year. The government’s own polling suggests that solar PV enjoys 90% public support. Ministers have established a clear target to increase solar capacity by nearly fivefold to 70GW by 2035 and promised that the new government/industry Solar Taskforce will have a “laser-like focus on cutting the costs and breaking down the barriers to harnessing the power of the sun”.

A comprehensive new solar strategy is expected in early spring 2024, nearly ten years after the last one fizzled away into obscurity after the 2015 election and the then 20GW by 2020 “ambition” was abandoned.

Chris Hewett, CEO of Solar Energy UK and co-chair of the Solar Taskforce, is optimistic about its chances of success, noting that there is a huge amount of work underway to define the roadmap to 70GW by 2035, including monthly subgroup meetings well supported by industry, and with significant input from DESNZ.

He emphasises that a key challenge facing the taskforce is to “address the key barriers to this target, including speeding up network connections, investing in a skilled workforce, developing a stronger UK supply chain, and unlocking the remaining planning, finance and market barriers to accelerate rooftop solar”.

Delivery measures

On the face of it, the 70GW 2035 target certainly represents an extraordinary vote of confidence in a technology that was once dismissed as too expensive and irrelevant to “cloudy Britain.” It is easy to forget now that before the feed-in tariff started in 2010, the UK solar market was still just a few MW per year. At the time we thought that was good progress. I’ve always believed that it’s better to have government solar PV targets than not have targets, but they need to be backed by a consistent, dedicated and comprehensive package of delivery measures, and crucially governments need to stay the course.

The Climate Change Committee has pointed out – in its 2023 progress report to Parliament – that “the deployment of solar capacity is significantly off track to meet the government’s target of 70GW by 2035. An average annual deployment rate of 4.3GW is required to deliver 70GW of solar by 2035″.

Frankly, that scale of solar PV cannot be delivered without a very significant contribution from solar farms, and it remains to be seen whether the new Solar Taskforce will be able to agree on the concrete actions on planning and grid connections, required to deliver a massive increase in solar farm deployment.  We no longer have a Prime Minister who admits that she is “depressed by the sight of solar (farms)”, but that attitude is still common in the Conservative party, it informs too many local planning committees and remains a significant barrier to delivering the 2035 target.

Concrete results

Nor can the solar sector ignore the unhelpful noise from parts of the Conservative party and its supporters in the right-wing newspapers, around the UKs 2050 net zero target. Specific measures aimed at slowing the pace of change in one industry, inevitably impact on investment and confidence right across the low-carbon sector. Senior Conservative ministers in previous governments used to understand this, but as Nina Skorupska CEO of the Renewable Energy Association, has pointed out, “at times it can feel as if we are wading through treacle when repeatedly being challenged to make the economic case for net zero”. While Chris Hewett has described Rishi Sunak’s u-turns as “an economic misjudgement of historic proportions”.

The solar PV economic, investment and employment stakes in 2023 are truly vast compared to the damage done to a still fledgling industry by the first feed-in tariff u-turn in 2011, so it’s important that the Solar Taskforce moves quickly from reviewing, agreeing priorities and setting out work plans, to delivering tangible concrete results. Ministers have promised as much, and the industry is hoping to see real policy progress by early Spring 2024. We shall of course see how much progress is made in reality in what will be a General Election year, or whether the next 12 months may yet stall progress, pushing the UK even further behind the trajectory needed to deliver the government’s own 70 GW solar PV target. If that happens it would suggest that the UKs long running solar coaster still has a few more dips and lows, twists and turns to run yet.

Dr Sebastian Berry is a former Head of Public Affairs at Solarcentry (2001-2018), Vice-President of SolarPower Europe, Vice-Chair of Solar Energy UK and winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award at Solar & Storage Live 2022).