Local authorities and their role in Solar PV development - Blog

20 October 2018

There is no doubt that Solar Media provides a great service for those seeking to keep in touch with the wider renewable energy agenda. Nowhere is that better illustrated than by its market analysis of projects and the development pipeline.

However, I was dismayed by comments made by Finlay Colville, Head of Market Research, in the piece published on 1 November 'UK Subsidy Free Solar To Commence in 2019' (reference). In that piece Colville was discussing whether there has been a truly subsidy free solar PV development yet and included both the Anesco Clay Hill Farm and West Sussex County Council's recent Westhampnett project in his conclusions that there had not.

I have no issue with the analysis that real subsidy free has not yet arrived, but I did rail at his subsequent comment:

"And forgive me for some cynicism, but seriously, are we really to believe that a local Council …. Is going to be the front runner in UK large scale post subsidy build outs! The Westhampnett site had been in the planning for several years, and was fundamentally an exercise in sustainability -target driven marketing euphoria."

Wow! What a crass, ignorant and ill informed comment that was and one that deserves to be answered. David Pratt diplomatically picked this point up in his piece 'Public To Private: Does the latest subsidy free solar farm offer a bridge to future deployment?' saying: 'Far being for me to dispute Mr Colville's comments – which are far more informed than my own – however …' Well his comments are not more informed than my own and I will dispute those comments very strongly.

I have specialised for over 12 years in local authority energy projects and am currently assisting a large number of local authorities to move forwards in this space. They are not trying to be market leaders, just trying to make the most of their assets in a difficult financial market. Local authorities are not noted for acting swiftly, but as Pratt points out, have the benefit of taking a much more long term view, based on more modest returns and for wider civic benefit.

So the markets should welcome the presence of local authorities in this market, not try and score cheap points at their expense.

There are currently over 20 local authorities nationally that are poised to enter the solar farm market. There are about a dozen built, from the first in Cornwall Council to the latest in West Sussex and they have suffered the same as other developers with national policy turbulence. Many would be built by now if it were not for the changes to subsidy regimes and other such setbacks.

However, they have not given up and are continuing to move forwards on gaining planning permissions and grid connections to make those sites oven ready. They are also modelling battery storage and looking at electricity markets, such as the much maligned Capacity Market, to increase incomes.

However, the journey that local government is on is similar to that of its private sector counterparts. It is seeking to find a more sophisticated approach to energy, rather than just building a generating station that will make some money in the short term. Specifically, local authorities want to use energy as a tool for economic development in their areas.

I am currently acting for a Council with a huge development site in its Local Plan, that is zoned for commercial and industrial development. Within that site the Council owns considerable land, including a former landfill site that has been capped and would be ideal for a large solar farm. Also in the vicinity are an EFW plant, other factories that have high energy usage and an industrial estate, with considerable room for expansion. There are also development projects that are slated and confirmed, but not yet constructed.

The grid capacity is good in this area (which is based in George Osbourne's 'desolate North') and so the Council is trying to act in its role as community leader and put together a scheme which will not only see its own solar farm developed, but will also see either private wire connections or some form of electricity grid being developed. The private wire is a well known solution for generators but here has a different slant in that it gives the Council the ability to effectively make local businesses more competitive, by reducing their energy costs.

If an electricity hub of some form is chosen then this needs an anchor tenant and the Council is the ideal party to guarantee such a development for the benefit of many other private sector businesses. This may open up the potential for other renewable energy projects that would not otherwise see the light of day to come forwards. As such it can be a tool for economic regeneration, which attracts new businesses in the area and boosts its economy.

So electricity is being seen in its wider sense as an important part of the infrastructure of an area, rather than just an economic asset for a shareholder. If local authorities are not undertaking this sort of holistic work to see the bigger picture for an area, who will?

So we should all join together in the energy industry and be mutually supportive in the context of a Government that can't make up its mind and currently discriminates against renewable energy development across the country. Who cares who gets the first project away, as long as it is subsequently followed by many more?

The local authorities that I am acting for may well set a trend in the energy space in time to come but whatever their pace of development, motives or financial returns, their projects are as welcome to the industry's as anyone else's.

So lets stop talking nonsense Finlay and get on with the job of reaching our joint goals of achieving a renewable energy future.

Stephen Cirell is an independent consultant on the green agenda specialising in local government and the public sector. He is author of A Guide to Solar PV Projects for Local Government and the Public Sector, published in 2012.

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