Solar ambitions

The Government's Solar Strategy recently pointed to a target of 20+GW of solar energy by 2020 This is a marked increase on the 2.5GW currently online at the moment and for a number of reasons is an ambitious figure. Take up so far was described by Climate Change Minister Greg Barker as "breathtaking" when he spoke at the Large Scale Solar UK Conference in Truro, Cornwall last week.

In a blaze of positive figures Barker highlighted that the 420,000 domestic PV installations generating 1.5GW and the 400MW of solar deployed under the Renewables Obligation Certificates since January 2013 all support the 15,000 jobs in their sector. He said that the Government was committed to solar as part of the energy mix and it was taking a hands-on strategy to help drive the technology forward but he also gave a nod to the protestors outside the Conference venue and said that support mustn't be assumed from all, especially the people who might be impacted by any development.

ENA's David Spillett was also speaking at the event setting out the background to networks, the technical problems caused by the connection of renewables to the grid and the solutions that DNOs and other stakeholders are working towards to overcome those challenges. Most notably the activity as part of the DECC/Ofgem Smart Grid Forum, the assessment of the impact of low-carbon technologies and the Low Carbon Networks Fund. ENA is also reviewing the connection guides and standards for distributed generation - energy generated from renewable sources connected to the distribution network rather than the higher voltage transmission network.

The Conference was set up to allow large-scale solar developers to come together and discuss the best way to move their industry forward, addressing the challenges and sharing best practice. With Barker in attendance and many others from the solar industry and their supply chain who can benefit from this source of energy, the Conference was a positive one, despite those protesting against large solar farms outside the venue. A few speakers, including those from DECC, actually suggested that 20GW was a minimum and their ambitions could be between 20-30GW.

The challenge with renewables, especially on a large-scale like these solar projects, is that they come with a level of uncertainty. On a sunny day and a cloudy day they will provide significantly different amounts of energy, and we all know how predictable the great British weather can be. This intermittency poses its difficulties for the networks and while ENA members support the connection of renewables, there must also be the right processes and frameworks in place to ensure the energy can be transported and used when it's there and that other sources are available when it isn't.

On the scale the Government is suggesting (20-30GW) this will need to include interconnection and buyers on the continent or additional storage capacity to avoid significant and costly network reinforcement. There was also recognition from Barker that the solutions for this problem won't come from one part of the industry alone and the new Solar Strategy Group, which ENA is a member of, will be important for bringing parties together.

Barker was keen to emphasise that solar has a positive image currently (82% of the public support it) but that can't be taken for granted, especially with the targets DECC have. So he recognises that it can't be at any cost and it also can't just be placed anywhere on a large-scale. Large projects must take the communities with them and the costs must be justified. Consumers and certain sections of the media (Barker highlighted the Daily Mail and The Telegraph) were already forming less than supportive views of certain large projects and what they consider costly investment in our energy future.

If appropriate plans and mechanisms aren't put in place and if the burden on whoever is paying isn't established, then the ambitious targets may also find a much more challenging environment.

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