The energy landscape, like many other things, has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. When the last Energy White Paper was published, in 2007, coal served as the backbone of the grid, meeting 43% of UK electricity demand at a peak in 2012. Fast-forward seven years later and this has shrunk to little over 2%. Solar PV has gone from adorning the roofs of a few early adopters to more than one million installations across residential and commercial sites, and well over 1000 large-scale ground-mounted parks.
Globally, solar has been crowned the new energy king. This is bolstered by the emergence of, battery storage and electric vehicles as consumer mainstays, and commitments to achieving rapid decarbonisation being at the core of many business strategies across the industrial spectrum.
The Government’s new Energy White Paper has been anticipated for a couple of years now, its publication no doubt hindered by the uncertainty brought about by Brexit and, more recently, COVID-19. Many have bemoaned the continued delay, but this paper holds the potential to deliver a fundamental shift towards net zero, and as such we can afford to wait just a little longer. No stone should be left unturned as this Government seeks to drive policies which will produce a green economic recovery.
Solar’s role in this must not be overlooked. As a decentralised technology it provides high quality jobs from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and by the Government’s own reckoning is set to be the cheapest source of power for years to come. It becomes a no-brainer when you add this to its long lifespan, abundant popularity with the public, and its potential to support thriving ecosystems and biodiversity.
Indeed, the STA estimates that with moderate policy intervention in areas such as building standards and business taxation we could see upwards of 5,000 more jobs created annually in the solar and energy storage industries, and a boost of almost £1billion to GDP. These are not trivial figures – the solar industry has shown remarkable resilience to the Coronavirus crisis and stands ready to help deliver a rapid green recovery.
The White Paper should serve as an indicator of the UK’s net zero ambition for solar, batteries, renewable hydrogen and beyond, laying the foundations for a more holistic and ambitious approach to deliver low carbon energy. It is important that this Government’s aspiration for levelling up the deployment of renewable technologies is made clear, as well as how it intends to deliver the commensurate investments in infrastructure needed to support this, such as reinforcement of the grid.
The Government has already made its intentions around one particular renewable technology apparent, with a commitment to reaching 40GW of offshore wind by 2030. It must do the same for others that will serve as a significant part of the energy mix in the coming decades – especially solar PV, onshore wind, and battery storage.
Demand for these technologies is no longer being driven solely by policy, but is coming direct from large energy consumers. Major retailers such as Tesco and Amazon are investing millions, as are utility companies and local authorities. The Government’s role in driving uptake is now one that must facilitate the market by bringing down barriers, whether fiscal, regulatory or based on practicalities such as addressing skills shortages. An explicit target would act as the starter gun to refocus policy priorities.
For solar PV, any government target must be in line with the expert analysis of the Committee on Climate Change, which states that 54GW needs to be deployed by 2035 to remain on track for net zero and the UK’s carbon budgets. This equates to delivering 40GW of solar in the next decade, an ambitious yet entirely achievable figure that will help to focus policymaker’s minds and drive confidence across the industry that this Government recognises the real potential of solar energy in the UK.
With the world watching as COP26 looms on the horizon, and the time available to limit global warming to 1.5oC ticking away, it is incumbent on this Government to lead the way and deliver a comprehensive strategy that unleashes the true economic and ecological potential of renewable energy in the UK. Anything less will not be good enough.