What is the UK government’s problem with solar?


Is it really less than 18 months since Theresa May's U.K. premiership? The advent of Covid-19 makes the previous prime minister's tenure seem aeons ago, so perhaps the U.K. government has not been too tardy after all in drawing up a white paper to explain how it will achieve May's net zero ambition.

Ever since the former PM announced, in June last year, the U.K.'s intent to achieve a net zero economy by mid century, constant calls have been made to spell out how the nation would solve a problem even thornier than the Brexit handed to remainer May by her predecessor, David Cameron. The fact May announced the net zero aim in the valedictory days of her premiership had a certain poetic quality, as her successor would be left to clean up the mess.

The long-awaited Energy White Paper which has emerged from Whitehall as a result is packed with good intentions on pressing matters ranging from better insulating energy-poor households and achieving a net zero transition that does not toss North Sea oil and gas workers onto the scrapheap, to renewable hydrogen, district heating and even sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and building a nuclear fusion reactor.

Solar eclipsed

Amid all that blue-sky thinking and ambition, however, the refusal to even mention solar power is disconcerting and can feel like a deliberate policy of those who compiled the document.

Whilst it is understandable use of the word “renewables” is more likely to refer to wind power than solar in the British climate, there is plenty of attention devoted to nuclear; carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS); energy efficiency; electric vehicles; and hydrogen but no mention at all of photovoltaics in the opening sections of the document.

Wait! What's that on page 9? “There are even early signs of some renewable technologies deploying without direct policy support.” Could that be a reference to the merchant and corporate power purchase agreement (PPA)-driven solar which has begun to emerge after the end of feed-in tariffs for PV? Flicking through the intervening 147 pages to check the note accompanying that line reveals it refers to a wind power project.

First mention

Page 21 treats with variable, time-of-use electricity tariffs which “reward consumers financially for using less electricity at peak times of demand or using more when overall demand is low and there is surplus generation available, for example on a sunny or windy weekend.” Almost. And there it is, on the following page, the first mention (by pv magazine‘s skim-read count, at least) of “solar panels”. In fact, they are like number nine buses, you wait ages – or pages – then get two at once.

There is finally an acknowledgement of the importance of solar to the U.K.'s net-zero ambition in the electrification discussion which notes electric demand could double by 2050, to account for more than half of final energy demand, up from 17% last year. That, states the white paper, would require a fourfold increase in “clean electricity generation.”

The energy mix to supply such generation should be determined by the electricity market, not by government, states the policy paper, which finally notes, 43 pages in: “A low-cost, net-zero-consistent system is likely to be composed predominantly of wind and solar.” The rider to that statement is that all that intermittent generation will have to be balanced by new nuclear, CCUS-equipped gas plants, batteries, demand-side response, interconnectors and “peaking capacity generators” featuring unspecified tech.

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With the authors of the paper having insisted no specific energy mix is being prioritized, it is telling to note that the sample 2050 illustration given – from more than 700,000 individual scenarios generated – features natural gas unabated by that, as-yet-unproven CCUS technology.

“Onshore wind and solar will be key building blocks of the future generation mix, along with offshore wind,” states the document again, a little further on, adding: “We will need sustained growth in the capacity of these sectors in the next decade to ensure that we are on a pathway that allows us to meet net zero emissions in all demand scenarios.”

Nuclear will play a part too, the government has stated, with an aim of taking at least one new nuclear facility to final investment decision stage during the term of the current parliament, which could run until 2024. That is on top of the planned commissioning of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset, western England, which is set to begin supplying 7% of the nation's electricity from the middle of the decade. There is also talk of small modular reactors scattered around the U.K. with the help of a £385 million (€427 million) advanced nuclear fund, and of the world's first fusion reactor, the Spherical Tokamak Energy Production facility which, said the government, it hopes to bring into commercial operation by 2040.


In terms of policy which could impact U.K. solar, the government has promised to re-examine who pays for what under the electricity system, potentially addressing that old chestnut about solar households benefiting from grid back-up power while avoiding the electricity bills other consumers have to face. That review will be completed in “spring” states the document, which added, the Energy Bill envisioned by the white paper could be expected by October 2022, and will form part of the government's 25-year Energy Plan.

How much solar will contribute to that brave new world remains to be seen but, even though the white paper attempts to airbrush PV out of the picture, its integral role in a net zero economy emerges nonetheless. On page 115, for example, where excited talk about the minewater-related district heating potential for the quarter of UK homes that sit on coalfields is illustrated with the case study of a project in Seaham, County Durham in the northeast of England.

That £175 million pioneer project, which is due to start being constructed this month, will involve the minewater in question being pumped by solar electricity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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