A challenging future

The future for field scale ground mounted Solar PV is set to become yet more challenging. The recently published DECC consultation document  makes clear the Government’s intention to close the current ROC funding mechanism to new solar PV capacity above 5MW from 1 April 2015. The reason given is that large scale solar PV development has used up too much of the allocated DECC funding, leaving less available for building mounted and domestic deployment.

Whilst developers consider their options for making financial models work under the new funding regime, the Government is also pushing the industry to increase deployment of industrial and commercial building mounted solar PV. This isn’t as simple as it seems. Despite consistent prompts from Whitehall since the initial roll out of the FIT in 2010, there has been little take up of what seems an obvious fit – why aren’t developers covering the ubiquitous acres of distribution warehouses, for example, with solar panels? Mainly because it is too complicated.

The factors that underpin warehouse design (such as weight bearing), operation (logistics and insurance), and financing (typically roll over leases for often short fixed terms), are predicated on finely balanced return-on-investment expectations. Any change in the model, such as adding a 20 – 30 year commitment to maintaining roof mounted PV panels, adds risk and cost for investors, and reduces letting flexibility and income.

So, here is our challenge to Government. Greg Barker has observed that the UK has the potential to install up to 20 GWp of solar energy in the next decade. If we want this to happen, government and industry really needs to think outside the constraints and conventions of traditional development, funding and legal models. These issues need to be tackled intelligently, and urgently, if solar PV is genuinely to contribute to the UK’s decarbonisation commitments.

Out of the Box?

Whilst the legal and governance tools catch up, however, what other opportunities are there for temporary deployment of large scale ground mounted solar PV? Here are our thoughts (none of them original!)

Using undeveloped areas within the transport infrastructure network, as in continental Europe. Yes, there are large sections of highway and rail verges where underground services would prevent installation of solar arrays, and risk of glint and glare effects on drivers would have to be completely removed. There are other areas with biodiversity sensitivities, but there are nonetheless opportunities, such as south facing motorway verges, which are not currently being realised. Why not?

Car parks? Imagine the energy that could be produced if the area allocated to shoppers’ parking at out of town retail sites, such as Cribbs Causeway, was covered by solar panels? The inevitable reduction in parking capacity to accommodate the solar arrays and drivers manoeuvring into spaces, could be offset by increasing public transport provision. Yes, the design of and insurance model for the solar park would need to account for accidental damage, but again it’s already done in Europe.

Redundant mineral workings are traditionally technically complex and much more costly to redevelop than green field sites. They are, however, likely to benefit from existing links to grid and transport networks. Solar arrays characteristically require light touch development works and are temporary.

The not insignificant stumbling block to this vision for PV development is the lack of economically viable grid access to deliver smaller schemes. At present there is simply inadequate grid capacity in locations other than green field sites to support the large scale generation of solar PV. Without significant public sector investment the government’s vision for the deployment is unlikely to materialise. The question therefore remains of whether policy and, more importantly, politicians can address the practicalities of unlocking PV potential.