Q&A: Solar Energy UK’s Chris Hewett on rebranding the trade body and a “new era” for solar

Chris Hewett, Solar Energy UK

Chris Hewett, Solar Energy UK’s chief executive, said the group hopes to start hosting in-person events again later this year. Image: Solar Energy UK.

The Solar Trade Association has rebranded to Solar Energy UK this year to reflect the “new era of solar in the UK”, with plans for increased member activity as well as striving for a target of 40GW installed capacity in the country by 2030. We caught up with chief executive Chris Hewett to find out what the trade body has in store for 2021.

 

Why was it important to change to Solar Energy UK this year?

It feels like this is new era for solar energy in the UK now. We have gone through a few transitionary years. Subsidies have sort of tailed off, and then there was Brexit and obviously COVID-19, it has all been transitionary. We are well and truly into the subsidy-free era now, and it feels like from what we hear there is a real optimism in the sector and the industry will take off in a sustained decade of growth. It felt like the right time to modernise our look and the way we present ourselves to reflect that new era.

You mentioned the process to rebrand started in March. What has been the most challenging aspect of bringing this project to life?

I don’t feel like it has been that challenging, really. The team has put in a lot of work and the board and managers have been very supportive, so we have felt in tune with where the industry is going. We also managed to carry on working with full staff levels last year, and hope there will be a renewed explosion of growth in the next few years.

What are you planning to do next year to make people aware of the new brand and raise the industry’s profile?

One of things we are going to be doing more of is reaching out beyond the solar industry to buyers of energy. We have a partnership with techUK and are working with the Green Finance Institute to look at the impact of the value of solar properties. We are working on a number of reports with high profile partners.

Over the COVID-19 period we intensified our dialogue with government so we now have weekly calls with UK government and civil servants to see more accurately the current situation, but also work more deeply on policy as well. This year we are going to publish a more detailed report on how we think we can achieve 40GW of solar. We started that work last year and we are going to complete this year and publish a report in the next few months. Other key activities include a series of events looking at things including clean energy buying, the water sector and transport, and look at stimulating the PPA market. We are starting to see the PPA market take off in the UK with the likes of Amazon, the City of London and Tesco as well, so that is something to look forward to.

The other thing to say is that we are going to have more weekly bulletins, emphasising positive updates. These will be based on what the industry is telling us. We will also publish more statistics about what’s happening and give some profiles of the projects of our members.

One thing about our new brand is that it is more visible in social media, so we will be doing a lot more with that in future.

How important will digital events be to Solar Energy UK this year, and do you see this staying the same?

We have changed the way we approach digital forever. We started holding weekly webinars for a while, now we will host monthly webinars that will cover areas such as utility and rooftop solar. Our working groups are all online and we are still doing those quarterly working groups.

We obviously want to get back to face to face events and hopefully towards the second half of next year we will get towards working on them again, but we have also talked to our members about this. Whilst there is a lot of demand for getting back to that networking and meeting face to face, for companies that are not London-based but want to get involved we’ll probably still hold those working groups online in future. We will still hold online events certainly for the first half of the year in terms of conferences and seminars and so on. We hope to move back to face to face in second half of the year but, obviously, that is out of our hands to some extent.

Solar Energy UK also has a devolved group for businesses in Scotland, how do you see they company’s structure evolving as the sector grows?

It is very much member led. We have had a very active STA Scotland group for a number of years. We certainly talk to the devolved assembly in Wales and in time very much hope to set up a more physical presence in both Edinburgh and Cardiff, but for now that is an ambition. It will depend on what the companies in those countries want from us. We have quite a number of our members work in the Irish market north and south of the border, so that’s something we’d look at, but as ever all of these things would be completely dependent on where working groups tend to be. We have a set of sector specific working groups, one that looks at local authority engagement and another looking at energy storage, and as our membership changes, we reflect our activity based on what those needs are.

What are your policy priorities are going to be in 2021?

CFD auctions will be taking place this year so there will be a lot more detailed work with government around how those should be structured to enable solar bidding into those markets. We are in active discussions around the Green Homes Grant and whether that can be extended further to start with – eventually it was taken to the local authority schemes for solar and storage and we would hope to extend that as well so that’s a big one for us.

On the commercial side, business rates are still the totemic barrier for rooftop, but it’s interesting as the commercial rooftop market seems to be coming back and there’s been a bit of a resurgence in the second half of the year from the figures we’ve seen, so that’s something which we’ll focus on as well as policy work. We will also be demonstrating to government what is happening in the market already. More strategically at a higher level we have this target of 40GW for 2030 and the more I look at it the more convinced I am that is easily achievable so it’s again working with the industry to demonstrate how that can happen and how we expect that to be rolled out across all the different sectors there.

One final area worth looking at is different areas of market growth. We are working on a piece looking at the value of solar properties in partnership with the Green Finance Institute, to encourage more finance companies to offer more products, whether that’s green finance mortgages or into the residential sector.

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