UK: DECC community solar backing prompts STA 10 commitments amendment

The U.K.’s Solar Trade Association (STA) is poised to amend its 10 Commitments on solar power in response to the government’s latest backing of community energy projects.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has published today a Voluntary Agreement that pledges greater support for local ownership of solar farms. It offers solar developers the opportunity to explore models of community ownership where there are legally constituted community energy groups, and where it is a commercially viable option to offer local ownership and investment options to communities interested in solar power.

In response, the STA has drafted an amendment to its 10 Commitments that reads: "We will engage with the community in advance of submitting a planning application and, where commercially viable and where there is a local appetite, we will innovate in investment opportunities for local communities in their local solar farms, including partnerships with local authorities."

Unveiled in 2013, the STA’s 10 Commitments are pledges made by STA members (developers, builders or tenants) to comply with best practice guidelines, with a clear emphasis on sensitivity to agricultural and protected landscapes, local employment, community engagement and minimal impact.

"Our members are already pioneering successful ways for the public and local authorities to invest in local solar farms," said STA’s head of external affairs Leonie Greene. "The Voluntary Agreement published today aims to accelerate innovation with local ownership and investment across the renewables sector. Our aim is to find real win-wins for the industry and communities that will ultimately enable the U.K. to accelerate the deployment of clean power."

The early literature from DECC stresses that the initial pro-community push will be a period of innovation, during which time different ownership, investment and pricing models will be adopted to best-suit each installation.

Toddington Harper, CEO of Big60Million – which delivered the first Climate Bond community investment scheme in the country when it exceeded its $5.5 million bond target for Willersey solar farm – said: "To truly deliver a solar energy revolution in the U.K. it is critical that the technology has widespread support from local communities closest to projects

"We are delighted that the government is helping to drive forward community ownership schemes because sharing the financial, environmental and social benefits of solar projects with local communities will lead to solar energy becoming even more popular."

The 2.4 MW West Solent Solar Cooperative in Hampshire, southern England, is one example of the power of community-backed solar in the U.K. Its 500 owners are mostly drawn from the local community and the solar farm provides decentralized energy locally that has helped the community take control of its energy needs and bills.

DECC’s announcement is a welcome step in the right direction, but more needs to be done to work through the many caveats to its strategy that need addressing, added Greene. "Forming direct financial relationships with communities is exciting, but there are still important unknowns on the costs of some of these approaches," she said.

"Returns in solar are lower than other technologies and the solar industry alone is being forced into smaller schemes, meaning potentially disproportionately higher costs for pursuing this agenda." Greene urged DECC and the wider solar industry to watch the emerging evidence base closely in order to identify future approaches that could prove successful.

One headline suggestion proposed by the STA is for the government to better resource community-scale solar under FITs so that communities are able to develop their own solar projects at a more attractive rate than currently.