Land prices lower than in England are luring developers to Scotland, writes Perry Gourley
WHEN John Forster, head of Scotland’s largest solar installer, addressed a renewable energy conference in Glasgow this month, it was standing room only.
Forster, who is chairman of the newly formed Solar Trade Association Scotland, says the attendance at the event highlighted the surge of interest being seen in the industry north of the Border.
While solar is hardly a new technology, its take-up in Scotland to date has been relatively limited compared to the rest of the UK.
Of an estimated eight gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity in the UK, only around 200 megawatts (MW) is in Scotland across around 35,000 homes and 600 businesses.
Forster, chairman of Brechin-based Forster Energy, argues that the growth potential is huge and that there would be many benefits from wider deployment of solar in Scotland.
“Solar can play an important role in helping meet Holyrood’s ambitious 2020 targets on renewable energy but also in alleviating fuel poverty which is a major issue for Scotland,” he says.
Forster says the economic spin-offs of solar investment are also significant and believes numbers directly employed in the industry in Scotland could grow from around 400 currently to up to 5,000 in a relatively short period of time as more householders and businesses look to cut energy bills.
Developers of solar farms are also becoming increasingly active in Scotland, partly down to the fact that prime sites in the south of England have become harder to find due to land prices and grid capacity issues.
London-based Green Hedge Renewables, which has developed 18 solar farms south of the Border, is about to submit a planning application for its first development in Scotland.
The 30-acre solar farm on farmland to the south-east of Wormit, in Fife, would generate 4MW of energy, enough to power around 1,360 homes.
Managing director Niels Kroninger, who was in Edinburgh last week to attend the Scottish solar forum hosted by green industry business network ecoConnect, says the company is also in early discussions over two further sites on the east coast of Scotland. In total, the three farms would involve an investment of around £15m.
Although Kroninger estimates that revenues from a typical site in Scotland would be around 10 to 15 per cent less than one in the sunnier south-west of England, that reduction can be offset by cheaper land prices. “In terms of sunlight, Fife is actually pretty much the same as say Bristol,” he points out. According to Kroninger, the biggest issue facing developers in Scotland is getting a connection to the electricity grid, a long-standing bone of contention for the whole renewables industry.
Forster agrees that “there needs to be a long, hard look at capacity of the grid or deployment of all renewables will be restricted”.
One potential workaround is for solar installations to look to share the same grid connection as on onshore wind sites given that seasonal differences means they tend to generate at different times.
Rapid advances currently being made in battery technology also highlight the potential of integrating wind and solar generation to provide baseload power for the UK, something the intermittent nature of individual renewable technologies cannot provide.
The Solar Trade Association Scotland recently met senior Scottish Government representatives to highlight the potential of the sector. Forster described it as a very positive exchange.
While issues such as planning, which will determine the pace of rollout of new solar, are within Holyrood’s remit, perhaps the biggest single factor – subsidy levels for solar generation – are under Westminster’s control.
The solar industry has already had to deal with the introduction of the new Contracts for Difference support scheme for large projects and a number of reductions in levels paid under the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) scheme for smaller projects.
With the recent change of UK government, Forster says the industry was keen to see stability rather than ride the so-called “solar-coaster” of the past, where major changes have been brought in with little notice.
“Subsidies for solar are reducing as the cost of installation continues to come down, but for the industry it is important the reduction in support is gradual and in line with the falling costs rather than sudden drops.”
The industry will be pressing its case ahead of a review of the FiT scheme later this year.
Within five years Forster predicts the industry will reach “solar independence”, the point at which it will no longer require any subsidies.
“That will be a great moment for the industry, as we will then be able to exist in a free market without having to be under a degree of control.”
Hot stuff: Price of technology falls
THE “game-changing” potential of solar power was highlighted in a report by Edinburgh-based energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
It said the dramatic fall in the price of solar panels in recent years has “altered the economics of solar energy”, putting it in a strong position to compete with other forms of power.
A separate report from Deutsche Bank predicted solar will be at grid parity – meaning it costs the same or less than getting electricity from the grid – in up to 80 per cent of the global market within two years.
It cited factors including the rise in electricity prices and solar technology costs, which it predicts will fall by a further 40 per cent by the end of 2017.
Deutsche Bank also predicted some forms of energy storage will halve their costs in two to three years, which will promote greater solar roll-out.
Across Scotland, the Solar Trade Association estimates that there are 25,000 hectares of south-facing commercial rooftops that could be put to use to generate energy.
Data from WeatherEnergy showed that sunshine in Edinburgh in April generated more electricity than is used in an average home – a total of 113 per cent. In Aberdeen, the figure was 111 per cent, 106 per cent in Glasgow and 104 per cent in Inverness.
For homes fitted with solar hot water panels, there was enough sunshine in the cities to cover average usage.