Solar PV: 300MW-scale installations needed ‘in every local authority area’ and under-funded planning departments put all stakeholders at risk

There must be the equivalent of a utility-scale PV installation in every local authority by 2050 to meet our Net Zero aim, and stronger policy support is needed to achieve that target, according to speakers at an event organised by planning law specialists BDB Pitmans. Under-funded planning departments present a risk to developers, local authorities and to consumers who need to have low-cost PV in the most beneficial sites.
The UK has to increase its PV capacity from 14GW to 56-121GW by 2050, Sarah Price from DWD Planning Consultants reminded the meeting. Although there will be a contribution from rooftop solar, the total will require nearly 400 solar farm that would be defined as ‘major infrastructure’ – ie over 350MW. That is one for every one of the country’s 382 local authorities. Since many authorities are cities or otherwise do not have land space, many authorities will have more than one such farm to permit. And to meet the necessary rollout speed, we should be awarding development consent to at least five such solar farms every year, she said.
That would require government to give PV the same kind of supportive policy and public narrative that it gives to offshore wind, Price said, so that solar farms could be consented at scale through the planning system while being respectful of local needs and concerns over issues such as retaining agricultural lands.
Jonathan Selwyn from Bluefield Development said that presented a challenge to local authority planning departments, which were underfunded. In some cases planning had been outsourced, which made it harder to gain an understanding of local issues. While there was a generally positive view of solar farms there was pushback on some large projects. Badly planned projects were a risk for the industry, he said.
Hugh Brennan from Hive Energy agreed, saying that planning authorities now have to deal with complicated issues such as ‘glint and glare’, or archaeological surveys, that had presented less of a barrier with smaller or earlier projects. And Selwyn noted that local authorities were increasingly taking a precautionary approach that required exhaustive surveys and other investigation – not least because the authorities were open to the risk of judicial review from objectors, which was a financial risk for them. There were “many ways to oppose” a solar farm, Brennan said.
There were not enough engineers who could provide solar expertise, either to local authorities or to local electricity distribution network operators.
Generally, the speakers agreed that stronger direction was needed from central government that large scale farms were required, with clearer guidance in planning statements.
Although the amount of power that could be generated from a site was increasing as power modules become more efficient, developers needed to size projects above 200MW to make them financially viable.
The result of the next allocation round of Contracts for Difference is likely to test the planning regime and speakers’ concerns. PV is included in the auction for the first time in several years, with 3500MW expected to win support. Mark Sommerfeld, Head of Power and Flexibility at the Renewable Energy Association, said “all eyes are on the auction at the end of the year”.
The speakers also noted some emerging issues in the supply chain for PV as Chinese suppliers had halted or reduced manufacture because of power supply interruptions in that country.

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