Don’t let the gloomy weather fool you, the UK is perfectly poised to harness solar power, writes Mark Owen-Lloyd
As extreme weather conditions become an ever more frequent phenomenon in the UK, the urgent reality of the climate emergency is increasingly visible – and with it the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
With Storm Jocelyn the latest named storm to hit the UK, you might be forgiven for thinking that the UK should double down on wind power, as a way to harness these harsher conditions for renewables. However, the UK is actually uniquely well-positioned for solar farms to provide long-term domestic energy security.
This may be surprising to those who lament Britain’s infamous overcast days, but the game changer is actually the UK’s national planning system.
Despite the rigorous planning regime, which rightly requires in-depth consultations with local communities, environmental impact reporting and reliability checks by Ofgem and National Grid, the UK’s approach is far more pragmatic than many EU countries. For example, our company is in the process of finalising plans for a £900m solar farm in West Oxfordshire, not far from Blenheim Palace, with more sites currently in the proposal phase.
The urgent need to achieve net zero, and rapidly combat the effects of climate change through the renewable energy transition, is acutely understood at a local level. Oxfordshire County Council, and all five of the district councils within Oxfordshire, declared a climate emergency in 2019. These councils and the local communities they serve are committed to contributing to the national drive to net zero. As a key part of this, the UK government has a clear target to increase solar capacity by nearly fivefold to 70GW by 2035 (with 16GW currently in operation).
We have doubled down on the UK as a place to invest in solar energy because developments of this scale (the West Oxfordshire solar farm alone will produce 840MW, enough energy to power 330,000 homes) are classified as Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.
The planning guidance, and the national planning authorities who oversee it, are able to provide a huge amount of clarity and confidence for developers. We could never have the necessary certainty to take on such significant projects in, say, Germany, where they can take many more years to complete, and face countless delays.
The UK landscape is also, perhaps surprisingly, perfectly positioned for solar energy. Building solar energy plants is far less intrusive than building onshore wind farms, as the visual impact of a solar farm can be mitigated in any number of unobtrusive ways that also enhance biodiversity.
In order to establish true energy security, the UK needs a diverse, robust energy mix. This means rapidly embracing existing deployable technologies, like wind and solar, which are already highly reliable, as well as emerging and future technologies. Solar panels in particular have advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, and make for reliable, cheap energy sources, even on overcast days.
With 11 major solar farms currently proposed for development in Lincolnshire alone, the UK represents a unique opportunity for a huge and rapidly growing industry which has been comparatively untapped until now.
The old stereotype of gloomy British weather is certainly a far cry from the sunlit uplands that solar energy developers see in the UK, and this significant opportunity deserves to be lauded as truly world-leading.