Lord Ravensdale: ‘The next government must move quickly to provide certainty for UK solar’

As a chartered engineer with over a decade of experience working in the energy sector, I know how important it is for investors to have certainty to deliver infrastructure at the scale needed to supply the power that the grid will need for the future, fight climate change and deliver energy security for the UK.

Take the UK solar sector, where the government has played an important role instilling confidence in businesses by setting ambitious long-terms targets and creating the Solar Taskforce. This in turn has allowed businesses to plan ahead and invest the millions of pounds required to deliver large-scale renewable projects.

However, recent delays to making decisions on large-scale Development Consent Order (DCO) solar projects have begun to undermine confidence in a sector estimated to be worth over £20bn to the UK economy. Since September 2023, we have seen a total of five delays to decisions on DCO solar projects.

With a general election now fast approaching, the next government will need to address barriers to green economic growth, including reforming the planning system and making timely decisions on large-scale energy projects.

Investment and jobs

Firstly, delays to DCO decisions are risking billions of pounds of necessary investment in the UK’s energy system. There are currently four-large-scale solar projects that are awaiting a DCO decision in the coming months, which represent a combined investment in the UK worth around £2 billion.

Any political indecision has a detrimental impact on investor confidence and increases the risk of us losing out during a time of increased international competition for inward investment.

Furthermore, these types of projects play an important role in boosting local employment and reducing energy costs, while levelling up the country.

From my own experience as an engineer, delays like we have seen recently only exacerbate the challenges for developers in planning for hiring and supply chain management.

Planning reform

There is also the need to embed a greater sense of pragmatism into the planning system to get more renewable energy capacity built at pace – and build upon the progress made in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act where amendments ensured that climate change mitigation and adaptation will be taken into account in the drafting of new National Development Management Policies.

As an example, one particular issue is the existing requirements for archaeological trial trenching, where the planning system makes no distinction between a solar project or a housing development over a similar area.

Currently, trial trenching must be conducted before planning permission is granted, disturbing the on-site archaeology before there is certainty that a project can be built.

This is despite the relatively small impact of solar on the environment. Unlike a residential development or a new road, most of the land for a solar farm is undisturbed during the lifespan of the project, yet they are treated the same.

For a large solar farm this can cost up to £3 million and, in most cases, this is money spent before planning permission is even approved, scaring off potential investors who are unwilling to risk significant sums on a project that may never materialise.

Climate change targets

Finally, I want to stress the significant contribution that solar projects can make to the UK energy system.

The four solar DCO projects due for decision in the coming months alone would deliver close to 2 GW of renewable capacity and have the potential to power around half a million homes with clean electricity, cutting bills for consumers and promoting clean growth.

Unfortunately, politicised arguments over food security coupled with recent delays to projects mean the UK is no closer to delivering on its target of 70 GW of solar by 2035, which if achieved would only require 0.3% of UK land for ground-mounted solar.

Further delays to solar DCO decisions and a lack of ambition to reforming the planning system would send the wrong signals and bring into question whether the UK is still serious about maintaining its reputation as an attractive market for renewables investment.

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