UK may rejoin GW club this year


At the end of August, the UK’s Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) published the solar PV cumulative capacity data for July 2023, revealing it was 15,292.8 MW.

From January to July, the country added 634.8 MW of new PV systems, compared to 315.5 MW in the same period the previous year.

In July alone, around 71.3 MW of new additions were recorded, though the figures are considered provisional and expected to be revised upward as more data on newly operational sites is received. Newly installed PV capacity in July 2022 was 46.4 MW, and in June of this year, new additions totaled 84 MW.

Gareth Simkins, a spokesperson for PV association Solar Energy UK headquartered in London, told pv magazine these figures were “relatively low.”

“But I rather suspect it's a blip,” he said. “Secondly, one thing that I would stress is that the stats aren't considered enormously reliable.”

Chris Hewett, CE of Solar Energy UK, explained the government figures tended to “lag” on utility-scale PV operations, and there was no “reliable data” to quantify commercial industry rooftop output. “That has been flatlining with the government stats over the last couple of years,” he said. “We know for a fact that there's a lot more going on with the commercial rooftop compared to the government numbers.”

Hewett said that according to anecdotal feedback he was getting from association members, commercial rooftop solar and residential small-scale systems were experiencing market growth. Simkins estimated the July figure should be 16 GW. He predicted figures for 2023, 2024 and 2025 should reflect “strong growth” in the sector.

“To reach the government's 70 GW target by 2035 implies installing 4.5 GW of capacity each year from now until then, though that is within the realms of capability for the industry as it continues to ramp up,” he said. “Obviously, we're not going to go to that immediately, it's going to increase in terms of the pace but we will get there and quite possibly exceed it.”

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In March 2023, the UK government set up the Solar Taskforce – a consortium of solar industry stakeholders, jointly chaired by Hewett, assigned with expediting actions to achieve 70 GW solar deployment by 2035. Initiatives focus on increasing rooftop and ground-mount solar but also span securing investment and boosting the sector’s skilled workforce. The Solar Taskforce aims to publish a roadmap next year to deliver the 70 GW by 2035 target.

Hewett said the biggest challenge facing the UK’s solar PV sector was grid connection and investment, which was historically impacted by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem). Ofgem is the government regulator for the electricity and downstream natural gas markets.

“Some of Ofgem's rules was depressing the amount of investment, which the networks were allowed to do because it was deemed to be increasingly the consumer bill,” he said. “Obviously now since solar and wind are the cheaper technologies on the market, the quicker you can get solar and wind onto the market the quicker you can drive down the prices.”

The second largest issue facing the sector was developing a skilled labor force. Hewett said this meant ensuring installers and engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) companies could adequately recruit accredited workers to match demand. “We're starting to run events on recruitment and run more things on training so that's a challenge, but it's one which the industry is starting to face,” he said.

Hewett added other issues spanned increasing the reliability of the supply chain and building up internal capabilities, such as the manufacture and sale of kit batteries, and more broadly eliminating “nitty gritty” issues surrounding rooftop-solar. This would include niche challenges, such as renters negotiating with landlords about the possibility of implementing rooftop solar on leased properties.

Anecdotally, Hewett said Solar Energy UK was seeing “a lot” of battery installations with home solar sales, “so at least 50% of all solar installations will have a battery with them now. That's something which is a big feature of the UK market.” Over a million UK homes have their roofs fitted with solar panels, according to the UK government's website, but there is still “untapped potential” as commercial buildings, schools, warehouses, car parks and water bodies could accommodate rooftop solar.

Noteworthy utility-scale solar PV projects in the country include the 350 MW Cleve Hill Solar Park on the north Kent coast slated for a 2024 completion, and the 840 MW Botley West Solar Farm in Oxfordshire, which has not had its planning permission submitted yet.

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