STA BLOGS: Let’s draw on solar’s hard won resilience

09 April 2020 | Chris Hewett, Chief Executive, STA:

These are challenging times. The Covid-19 crisis has effectively shuttered economies globally, transforming patterns of consumption and energy use and disrupting businesses on an unprecedented scale. As a result, 2020 may well be the most difficult year many of your companies have ever encountered.

The solar industry in the UK, however, has learned how to be resilient and is rising to the challenge, with distributors working hard to maintain the supply chain and the operators of solar parks keeping the energy system going, working together to pool maintenance resource. Some companies are even using their expertise and networks to bring in large shipments of hand sanitiser and face masks to support the UK’s response.

While the situation is difficult for larger businesses, it poses a significant threat to smaller companies in the value chain. At least a third of installers of rooftop solar have already taken the decision to stop trading for a period. Many order books are bare and home-owners are nervous about works during the Government’s lockdown. Corporate finance officers are also going to be very cautious about capital investment at this time.

In light of this, the Solar Trade Association is making our industry’s case to Government, calling for the following actions to support our members:

  • Accelerate the job retention scheme and business rates relief as soon as possible to help businesses to manage their cash flow
  • Provide the clearest advice possible for key workers and safe operations on outdoor sites
  • Unblock any possible delays on planning or permitting for future projects

But we also need to look ahead to the world after Covid-19. The government still has its ambitious target to completely decarbonise the UK economy by 2050. We know this can only be achieved with a huge increase in solar – it’s the cheapest, quickest and smartest path.

The STA knows how fast deployment of solar and energy storage can ramp up in this decade. We are certain that the industry can, as a minimum, triple solar capacity in the UK from 14GW to 40GW, with the associated increase in energy storage to enhance grid flexibility. That’s 10 years to capture enough energy from the sun to power 10 million homes, meeting at least 10% of UK electricity demand.

In this context, the next major UN Climate Summit, COP26, widely expected to take place in early 2021, will take on even greater significance, not least because the UK is hosting and will want to be seen to continue leading internationally.

When the immediate crisis is over, UK government will feel compelled to bring forward a major stimulus package to get the economy moving again, and it will be critical that the green transition is placed at the heart of the recovery, with solar energy playing a major role.

While I am cautiously optimistic, it’s clear that a likely recession and slow recovery will be an ongoing challenge for the industry. The planning system will come back to life, returning stalled projects to the table, but domestic installers may well suffer from a major drop in consumer demand, and corporate investment will take a hit..

At the STA, we are doing everything we can to support our members at this critical time, guided by three clear principles:

  • Connecting our sector and sharing experiences – providing our members with regular webinars, bulletins, blogs and guidance
  • Continuing to provide a strong voice for the sector – staying in regular contact and lobbying key government officials, ministers, and trade associations in the wider energy sector
  • Co-ordinating joint working across the sector – taking a proactive role where we can, for example, by making direct introductions to help our members work together

It may be too early to make recommendations about potential measures to support the solar energy value chain. But prioritising solar would not only stimulate the economy and hasten the clean-energy transition. It is also the job intensive, lower in cost than any other new form of generation and, crucially, very fast to deploy.

For these reasons alone, Government must look  to take decisive steps to get installers back to business. They are key to driving the UK towards a fairer, smarter and radically decentralised energy system.

Beyond that, what I want to say to the industry, is that over the past 40 years solar energy has gone from being a niche concept to a firmly established renewable technology that looks set to both strengthen our economy and deal with our growing climate crisis. During that time we have shown remarkable resilience to economic shocks to our sector. We know we can get through this crisis together.

 

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  • Chris Hewett is the Chief Executive of the Solar Trade Association.

    Chris has 25 years’ experience in advocacy, policy research, thought leadership and campaigning on a wide variety of sustainability, energy and environmental issues. He was Head of Climate Change for the Environment Agency, providing advice to Government on climate change mitigation and adaptation. He has worked for a number of leading NGOs & government agencies, including successful advocacy for the Green Investment Bank at Green Alliance, global aviation research for the Committee on Climate Change, and more recently leading policy and advocacy for the Finance Innovation Lab