Enso Energy is currently developing a 1GW pipeline of solar-plus-storage as part of a partnership with Cero Generation, which was launched by Macquarie’s Green Investment Group (GIG) in February and consolidates GIG’s existing and future European solar activities.
The first two of the sites in the pipeline – the 49.9MW Larks Green Solar Farm in South Gloucestershire and the the 40MW Walpole Bank Solar Farm in West Norfolk – were given planning permission early this year.
All the projects are to take advantage of newly available tracking and bifacial solar technology and they will all be backed by power purchase agreements (PPAs). Solar Power Portal caught up with Andrew King and Ian Harding, co-founders and directors of Enso Energy, to talk about the key considerations for putting solar through planning, the timeline of the pipeline and how government policy could support further solar development.
Enso Energy has been very busy as of late, having secured consent for the first two projects. How are the other projects shaping up and what sort of timeline are you envisioning for this pipeline?
We’ve made no secret of the fact that, together with our partners Cero, we have an ambitious pipeline of projects to deliver. We currently have five projects being considered by local authorities around the country that we expect to be determined in the first half of this year. We then have a further 10 or so we expect to be submitting to local authorities for determination over the course of the next six-months, and we are also commencing work on a project that will go through the DNS process in Wales. We’re busy.
What made now the right time to start developing this pipeline?
A combination of factors made it possible to proceed with our portfolio. The availability of viable connections with National Grid, the improvement in the economics for subsidy-free solar, but most importantly, the need to take action to deliver a net zero future. There’s increasing acceptance that this action is both necessary and urgent, with over 200 local authorities across the country having made declarations of a climate emergency.
What have been the difficulties of putting solar projects through planning during COVID-19?
We’re fortunate that a lot of our activities involve working in wide open spaces, thereby enabling site visits and surveying to continue. Managed carefully, we have been able to continue with our normal development activities without taking any unnecessary risks. Perhaps the most notable difference with negotiating the planning process during the pandemic has been its impact on consultation and speaking to local residents. This has had to move out of typical events held in village halls to virtual webinars. We’ve found the process to work much the same as it did prior to lockdown, with perhaps higher than normal levels of engagement – it’s easier for many people to find time to login to a webinar than to drive to a village hall.
What are the key considerations for developers when putting solar through planning in general?
There are a range of considerations we constantly review and assess for every site that we are seeking planning consent for. This is a balancing exercise that must take into account both the positive and negative impacts that a project can bring, to ensure that this delivers an overall net positive impact for the environment, local community and investors. Effectively communicating these overall benefits to planning officers, decision makers and the local community is crucial to success in the planning process.
A key focus area in all of this is ensuring that all of our projects deliver significant local biodiversity benefits through the protection of, and – where possible - enhancements to, existing public rights of way. Importantly, we’re also acutely aware that whatever trust you’ve built with a community, and whatever benefit the project will deliver, a lot of good work can be undone if you don’t get the construction phase of the project right, so we do all that we can to be as considerate as possible during construction. We’re always striving to build trusted relationships with local communities on issues including safety and biodiversity impact.
How do you think the UK solar market has fared during COVID-19 and why do you think it has managed to largely weather the storm in a way that some other sectors have not?
The market is robust and this is primarily down to three simple reasons. Firstly, even in the midst of a global pandemic, the sun still rises every morning. Secondly, the demand for electricity has not reduced, and it will only increase as we continue to change the way we use energy in other areas such as heat and transport. Finally, there’s a rapidly growing level of support for the transition to renewable energy throughout society (particularly now that it can compete without the need for government subsidies).
A green recovery has been at the heart of the government’s messaging, how do you anticipate solar could contribute to this?
Solar has a big part to play in the recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19, but for the country to realise the potential solar can bring, it’s going to need more focus from government. There’s a fantastic opportunity right now to align the need for economic recovery with the urgent need to continue to decarbonise our energy. Subsidy-free solar is good value for money, reliable and will play a core role in our future electricity supply.
Solar in all forms is going to play a key role in reaching net zero by 2050. What support does the technology need at both a national and local level to deliver on this?
In terms of public support, to a significant degree this is already there. More than two-thirds (67%) of the British public want to see the UK as world leader on climate change. The latest Public Attitudes Tracker, published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, shows that 80% of people support the use of renewable energy, with solar securing the highest level of support (85% of the 80%). Over 200 local councils have declared a Climate Emergency and government has committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
It is important that the sector has the backing and support from government, in terms of targets and plans for climate change and energy supply. This sets the agenda and underpins the need for more solar projects to be built to supply more electricity.