Step 1 – Develop the vision
It is important you are clear about the reason for undertaking, or participating in, a solar PV development project. For example, this may be to gain income for use within the community or to become more energy self sufficient to offset rising energy prices. You may have environmental drivers to reduce carbon emissions. It is important that you fully understand and define your own drivers so that project viability and outcomes can be tested against your objectives.
For communities, an excellent way to identify needs can be through the development of a Community Action Plan, the production of which will allow the development of a strategic plan and allow local democracy to define and respond to local community objectives and opportunities. It also provides a robust mandate for the distribution of funds when a community related venture begins to provide revenue. A strategic plan provides overall direction on the long path from where things are now to where we hope they will be. Community work can be greatly enhanced by a clear vision, a mission statement, objectives, strategies, and an action plan.
Businesses can also benefit from the development of their own action plan, as this helps link business needs and objectives with the potential to develop a solar PV energy project.
The main points to consider in an action plan are:
- What are the needs in your community/business and what evidence of these needs is there?
- What potential, realistic changes can you envisage?
- What actions and activities need to be undertaken to meet the needs and implement the changes?
- What are the costs of the actions?
- What are the short and long-term priorities?
Eligible community groups can apply for a CARES enablement grant to support developing a community action plan. A number of examples of action plans produced by community groups are referenced in Further Information.
Step 2 – Seek advice
It is sensible to seek the advice and experience of those that have started from a similar position and are well placed to offer help and guidance. By seeking this input from the outset, you will be able to build on the success of others when taking your project forward. Early liaison with your local CARES development officer can highlight opportunities for knowledge transfer between organisations and potential meetings or project visits.
Local Energy Scotland and other organisations such as Community Energy Scotland, Development Trusts Association Scotland and Energy Saving Trust also maintain case studies to facilitate the identification of suitable projects to approach & to gain their insight.
Consider completing a skills assessment of those persons that can be involved in the project during the development stages as the need to buy in consultancy support will clearly add to the cost of the project. The establishing a community group module describes the range of skills that could be beneficial.
Importantly, look for advice in relation to an appropriate scale of solar PV project to suit the project objectives.
Step 3 – Communicate
To ensure the best outcome for the project, establish clear communication within the local community, neighbouring communities and other stakeholders early in the project, even before a site is identified.
Experience shows that this communication must be open and honest about what is being planned and must include good opportunities to receive and respond to feedback. This also avoids any misinformation being generated and to allow the vision for the project and the benefits from it to be fully explained. Eligible community groups can apply for a CARES enablement grant to support communication of this nature.
Step 4 – Find a site
There are six important points to consider when identifying a suitable site:
- grid connection
- on-site electricity demand
- planning constraints.
If strong opposition remains after this process, it may make it harder and more costly to obtain planning permission (if planning permission is required) and may cause lasting social impacts within your community.
There are a range of guidance documents available for engaging with the community referenced in the further information section of this module.
Solar PV systems can be located either on buildings (typically roof top) or on ground-mounted support frames. Typically, a large open area should be sought. Barriers impeding the viability a solar PV installation in the area being considered should be assessed. For example, in almost all situations the installation of solar PV on a listed building will not be permitted. There may however be exceptions, at the discretion of the Local Planning Authority (eg where roof works are required and an integrated solar roof tile would not create visual concerns or raise any other concerns). Any obvious issues with roof structural integrity or the apparent lifetime of the building should be considered. For ground-mounted installations you may want to consider whether the area in question is prone to flooding or vandalism.
The major determinant of project financial viability is the level and duration of solar irradiation. This in turn is linked to the location of the site, the level of shading and the orientation of panels. Understanding these three factors for each site will help you identify which project will result in the maximum theoretical output.
The location chosen should have the highest possible solar irradiation for as much of the year as possible to increase the ‘availability’ of the system. This is a measure of the number of hours per year that the solar PV will generate relative to the maximum theoretical output. Solar irradiation varies geographically as shown in the following diagram.
Potential shading from nearby buildings, vents, vegetation as well as adjacent solar panels should be avoided to maximise solar panel exposure to direct sunlight throughout the year. Solar PV system technologies are being constantly improved to reduce generation losses associated with partly shading solar PV arrangements, but it should be noted that partly shading a solar PV panel may reduce the output of your solar PV system by more than the electricity that would have been produced by the shaded area.
The combination of orientation and location of panels may lead to issues with visual intrusion and in some cases reflection. This is of particular importance if the site is near an airport flight path.
There must be physical and legal access to the site to deliver, erect and maintain the solar PV system. While this is likely to be of limited concern in most instances, large ground mounted arrays in remote locations may require legal agreements to be drawn up or temporary access tracks to be constructed. Note that barriers to roof access will increase installation and ongoing maintenance costs.
Connection to the electricity grid will be required for most projects and can be available at an early date in some areas whilst restricted in capacity for a long period of time in others. Grid connection can be a significant issue across parts of Scotland, especially if large amounts of electricity are being generated (>50kW export capacity). The further the solar PV array is from a grid connection point, the higher the cost of connection will be. Early discussion with the DNO may give broad cost of connection, subject to detailed connection studies. This is covered in more detail in the grid connection module.
The extent to which these issues affect smaller solar PV installations may be less of a problem, however they must be considered. Similarly, basing your project on multiple, discreet, scattered solar PV systems may provide a route to higher yield overall from your project. However, the cumulative effect of a number of solar PV installations in a given region may introduce other issues especially associated with planning or local grid stability.
If you intend on connecting to the grid it is important to establish the correct process for registering the solar PV system early on. This can be done by contacting the relevant DNO. Note that the process for registration will vary by DNO and by solar PV system scale.
It is possible for solar PV systems to be installed without a grid connection (off grid), but these systems require suitable batteries which are expensive and often have limited life span.
On-site electricity demand
Electricity generated by the solar PV panels can either be exported to the grid, used on site or stored for later use. You may want to consider what portion of on-site electricity demand may be met by the proposed solar PV system. Given that electricity tariffs are almost always higher than the export tariff received from the DNO, maximising the portion of on-site electricity demand met by the solar PV system will often increase the economic returns of the project.
Naturally, sites with higher electricity demand during daylight hours will benefit most from on-site electricity generation unless battery storage is utilized. However, sites with multiple electricity supplies (MPANs) and relatively small electricity demands associated with each electricity supply (eg tenants in a block of flats) will likely require separate solar PV systems and may be a complication worth avoiding.
Solar PV installations no greater than 50 kW fall under Permitted Development rights in Scotland, which allows the installation of Solar PV without the need for planning permission.
Permitted developments will need to observe a number of conditions and limits. These conditions and limits vary slightly between domestic and non-domestic installation, as well as for solar panels mounted on buildings and solar panels ground mounted. Please refer to the further information section in this module.
If your solar PV installation is not a permitted development, you may apply for planning permission.
Clearly, designated areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Areas of National Outstanding Beauty (ANOB) and National Parks have significant planning restrictions associated with them. Development in these areas will therefore require additional consultation and will likely require more detailed background information to be supplied as part of the planning process compared to other locations. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has a web-based mapping tool that will show some of the relevant land designations and constraints and is referenced later.
Most planning authorities have published Planning Policy Guidance covering solar energy projects and this should be your first port of call for background information. In addition, many Planning Departments welcome early informal discussions with solar energy developers about their plans. If large solar PV projects have been proposed, or built in the area, the local authority web site will contain details of the planning application, the objections and any restrictions on the development of large solar PV projects. This can be a valuable source of local information. While results from this background research can never guarantee that planning consent will be granted on any given site, it may help to identify where there may be serious barriers and the basis for this. The planning module contains more information on this.
To develop a solar project on a site will require a lease for the lifetime of the project (usually 20 – 25 years). You will need to identify site owners of potential sites and approach to confirm their willingness in general terms to make the site available, to give you access and to do so for at least a 20-year period. The securing your site module contains further guidance on this which can be reviewed when you have identified a site.
Step 5 – Initial viability
Having identified a potential site (or sites) consideration of the commercial viability of the project should begin. Suppliers should be contacted for indications of the cost involved in a project. Suppliers are often able to give an estimate of project costs for the purpose of making an initial assessment of viability when provided with the location of the proposed site, the approximate size of the array (in kW) and the type of installation (eg ground mounted or roof mounted).
Web tools can also be used to provide an initial assessment of solar PV project viability, some of which are reference in Further Information later in this module. As a general rule of thumb, at this point in the development of the project a site generating an estimated payback of six years or less has the potential to make a viable project.
Break point 1 – Is there a reason to develop?
The development process in phase one is intended to identify the need for a project, help gauge local support and find potential sites. If all of the following are true, then there is good reason to develop a solar PV project and no reason for it to be stopped at this stage.
- Available to purchase (larger ground mounted systems), or where access can be secured on a long lease (at least 20 years).
- Accessible for solar PV installation and maintenance.
- Close to a point of grid connection (although not required).
- Likely to have a good solar yield, being free of overshadowing and capable of having cells mounted at close to the optimum orientation.
- Unlikely to cause unacceptable impacts on local people.
- Potentially able to gain planning permission (if not already a permitted development).
There are two actions that are useful throughout the entire ongoing project development, which you may choose to start now. Both are provided free by Local Energy Scotland.
- Investment Ready preparation – Local Energy Scotland has developed a tool for recording the progress in developing your project and storing all the supporting documentation in a secure, online site. Your local development officer will assist in setting this up.
- Project Development plan – a project development plan detailing key tasks, responsibilities and schedule for completion can help you meet the important deadlines that influence the success of your project. Local Energy Scotland has a project plan template which you can download.