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Scotland must set an ambitious solar target for 2030

February 10 2021:

Thomas McMillan, Savills.
Solar Energy Scotland chair.

As an Energy Director at Savills consulting on all renewables technologies across the UK for over a decade, one might wonder why have I decided to take on the role of Chair of Solar Energy Scotland.  It’s quite simple: in Scotland solar is regularly overlooked but has huge potential in helping to meet our ambitious net zero targets. I want to help showcase the technology to increase deployment in the country in which I live. 

Per head of population Scotland is leading the UK’s renewable revolution, with 11.8GW of installed capacity having been deployed at the end of Q3 2020.  Scotland’s electricity generation is now equivalent to approximately 90 per cent of our electricity consumption, yet over the same timescale, we have only installed 372MW of Solar.  This means that solar represents just 3% of all renewables in Scotland, a meagre contribution by anyone’s standards. 

The lack of investment into solar is a uniquely Scottish problem in the context of the British isles.  If you look at the UK as a whole 13GW of solar has now been deployed.  Scotland’s contribution represents just 2.5%, despite the fact we constitute a third of the landmass. There is a huge reservoir of resource that remains untapped. 

Now some people might argue that we have far more wind and rain here, and that this explains the subsequent gulf in technology and lack of solar deployment.  But it is perception rather than fact that is the key contributing factor here, casting a shadow over the Scottish sector and negatively influencing investors and policy makers alike.  If you take my home country of Fife on the East coast as an example, solar irradiance is 96% of that found around Birmingham.  Is this 4% really the main contributing factor to the poor uptake of solar in Scotland?

Unlike in England we have less competition for land here, creating a positive landscape for solar farms.  With a less dense population, residential dwellings have larger gardens for ground mounted solar, and fewer of us live in flats meaning homeowners are more likely to have a roof on which to install solar panels. 

The Scottish government has prioritised both affordable housing and fuel poverty; the creation of the 2019 Fuel Poverty Act cementing intent regarding the latter.  So with solar panels now able to deliver low carbon electricity more cheaply than mains electricity, the sector has an open door on which to knock.  In addition the large number of rural communities which have no access to Scotland’s gas network amplifies the possibilities for both solar PV and solar thermal where these technologies can be deployed in combination with others, such as heat pumps. 

Despite the many positive factors at play, a lack of political focus on solar energy has been a critical block to solar development in Scotland for many years.  Indeed barriers are in evidence throughout multiple government agencies, and it has been hard to break these down in an environment where wind energy is king. 

Solar developers and investors face a lack of permitted development rights in Scotland, compared to  England a Wales, along with excessive planning fees, making the planning process hugely challenging.  In addition business rates are creating an additional tax burden on companies wanting to invest in low carbon technology. The National Grid/DNOs treat 132kV connections as Transmission lines rather than distribution (as they are classed in England and Wales) This kills off many potential solar farms at the point of inception due to excessive costs to assess connection options. 

With significant investment into Scottish grid infrastructure in recent years for the deployment of wind, there is an enormous untapped grid potential for solar in Scotland if the DNOs apply sensible design methodologies that recognise that solar compliments wind generation and is likely to generate electricity when there is high demand for power.  At the moment solar does not have its own design methodology that recognises that there will be no export at night, this needs to change as it is limiting the deployment of solar as grid constraints are being identified where they do not exist. 

With key barriers removed Scotland is well placed to grow solar energy deployment to 4GW, more than ten times current levels, by the end of the decade, and an ambitious Government could potentially deliver as much as 6GW.  Not only would this contribute towards the country’s net zero ambitions but it would also create up to 6,000 highly skilled low carbon jobs for the Scottish economy.

As the new chair of Solar Energy Scotland I will be calling on the Scottish government to set an ambitious solar deployment target for 2030 so that real focus can be given to dismantling the development barriers that are holding back the industry.

Solar Energy Scotland’s members meet on a quarterly basis to bring together industry leaders and press for barriers to be removed so that the sector can reach its full potential. Details for the next meeting can be found here.