New Labour government’s central focus on clean energy growth welcomed by Solar Energy UK

In an interview with REI, Chris Hewett, Chief Executive of Solar Energy UK shares the industry body’s thoughts on the likely impact of the new government on growth in the clean energy sector.

Chris Hewett, Chief Executive of Solar Energy UK

“It is clear that the new government shares our vision of the need to decarbonise the power system as fast as possible with solar farms and rooftop solar, alongside energy storage, central to this ambition.

“Whilst some of the ministers we worked with previously were extremely supportive, it was clear not all their colleagues were on board. Now, we have a shared objective and unambiguous support for the sector (from this government) which is a welcome change.”

Kier Starmer addressing parliament

Will the significant personnel changes in Westminster risk a delay to the publication of the Solar Roadmap?

“In creating the Solar Taskforce, we worked closely with government officials on both sides of the house. Having held regular briefings with shadow (as they then were) ministers and advisors, the new Government is fully aware of the task force’s detailed work and keen to build on it.

“We’ve set a target to publish within the first 100 days, once the taskforce has had the opportunity to redraft in the light of new government commitments, which we believe will strengthen it, and the progress we have already made. I am very confident in that timeframe.”

You believe Labour’s manifesto commitments will deliver a boost to the roadmap?

“There are certain commitments, such as the Local Power Plan and the Warm Homes Fund, which the manifesto explicitly states will cover energy efficiency, heat pumps, solar and battery storage, that will broaden support and bring in groups such as social housing.

“There’s a strong commercial market with those able to pay investing their own money, but we are keen to make these solutions accessible to as many groups as possible, and particularly the people whose bills we most need to reduce.”

Planning was a key issue addressed in Rachel Reeves’ speech. Do the proposed reforms, including the removal of bottlenecks and recruitment of more planning officers go far enough?

“One of our big asks in the manifesto document we published during the election is for increased capacity in the local planning system – not just more planning officers but also more expertise. With many of those officers never having had to deal with renewable technologies, whether solar, wind or batteries, they need to be skilled up rapidly – there is a lot coming their way.

“On the national infrastructure side, we need consistency and speed of decision making. Three projects at that level were held up by the previous Secretary of State. We are hopeful that this Labour government can make fast decisions on those and on other significant national projects that will follow in the next six months.

“It’s early days but there is a lot of understanding among front benchers that more investment is required in the grid and that we need to accelerate connections.

“There is also a lot that can be done to alleviate delay simply through changes of practice. We look to the government to encourage the networks to review their own practices and not just talk about the investment side.”

The Future Homes Standard is one of several delayed publications. With so much sitting in the Labour in-tray, which are your priorities?

“We are hoping that the Future Home Standard, that was in the middle of its consultation process, gets resolved very quickly and will deliver effective legislation that mandates solar and batteries alongside heat pumps for new builds.

“Our number one ask, in terms of quick decisions, is the inclusion of rooftop solar in the Future Homes Standard.

“There are also quick decisions that can be made on planning and approvals for some of the larger solar farms and on Allocation Round 6 (AR6) of the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme, which is, again, all about solar farms from our perspective, but on the rooftop side, the Future Homes Standard is an obvious quick decision.”

Regarding the CfD round, you are calling for an increased budget?

We obviously don’t know exactly what bids have gone in, so flexibility is needed to ensure that as much capacity is built as possible for a reasonable cost to drive down consumer bills in the medium term. On this matter we are aligned with both Energy UK and Renewable UK.

Are there other ways in which the scheme could be improved?

“One step at a time, I think. We need to see the ambition for solar in AR6 and then we can think about what needs to go into future rounds, such as bringing in emerging solar technologies.

“Floating solar, for example, is widely deployable in reservoirs, but is still a bit more expensive, so there is a case for putting that into the pot too, in emerging technologies to see what innovation and technology can come from the solar sector.

The industry highlights the importance of clear and stable policies to attract investment and trigger significant growth. What policies would be top of your list of priorities to really unlock sector investment?

“We need:

  • Clear and consistent planning guidance.
  • Support for skills and filling the skills gap. We understand the professions and training required to get people into the sector as quickly as possible and would look for Government support to deliver this.
  • Leadership in communication. In our manifesto we referred to this as ‘embracing solar’ – a clear ministerial message that “We want more solar and this is this is how we want it”.
  • Public sector solar deployment targets. On public sector roofs – schools, hospitals, prisons, and public estates – that will save the taxpayer money. There is a significant opportunity, and we see this as another form of clear leadership.

“The final part of the puzzle is getting the market frameworks right to attract global investment into the UK.

“There is a lot of global capital looking for the right opportunity to invest in clean energy sectors and it makes sense for the UK economy, and for Rachel Reeves’ agenda, to attract that investment into the UK. If there is uncertainty or the playing field tips towards fossil fuels and existing generation then that money will go elsewhere.

“We talked about CfD. There is also REMA, the Electricity Generator Levy, and the Capacity Market. We would like to see a clear market framework with a renewables first approach to attract investment.”

Labour has suggested their clean energy ambition will create 650,000 jobs across all clean energy sectors. With the work done by the taskforce around the solar skills gap, do you consider that an achievable figure?

“Our very rough estimate is the creation of around 60,000 jobs by 2035, in the solar sector alone. We are commissioning a more detailed report that will give us a better handle on where those jobs might be.

“Many of them will be in installation, construction, and EPC jobs, but there may also be significant opportunities in the supply chain. In the farm sector, we see a lot of solar mounting built in the UK, often using UK steel. There is also UK battery production – a market we would like to see given a chance to develop and scale – as well as companies developing future sector technologies such as thin film and lightweight solar.

“We hope that the national wealth fund, announced today, alongside the new government’s industrial strategy and manufacturing policies, will look at the clear opportunities in this sector to develop the supply chain in the UK.”

What are the biggest positives you take from the change of government?

“In Ed Miliband, we have a Secretary of State who is not only experienced, but has run this department and knows how government works. He is also personally committed, and his entire political career has been around these issues.

“Even more importantly, investment in clean energy is now absolutely central to Labour’s economic growth agenda. There is no path to economic growth without going through clean energy transition. Keir Starmer completely gets that, and Rachel Reeves completely gets that.

“It makes the clean energy sector crucial to the rest of Labour’s agenda – indispensable – and that is what makes it really interesting. We know exactly how fast solar is being deployed across the rest of the world and we would like to see the UK matching that kind of speed.”

That clean energy growth is ‘front and central’ was clear from the incoming Chancellor of the Exchequer’s speech delivered Monday and, referring to Rachel Reeve’s assertion that there is ‘no time to waste’ and her vow to ‘take the difficult decisions to reignite growth’, Chris concluded: “We expect to see some announcements on the Solar Taskforce very soon.”