Q&A: Solar Energy UK’s new chairman Matt Black on COP26, the Green Homes Grant and 10 years in solar

Q&A: Solar Energy UK's new chairman Matt Black on COP26, the Green Homes Grant and 10 years in solar

Matt Black, non-executive director of greentech startup Solivus, has been appointed the new chair of Solar Energy UK, replacing Jonathan Selwyn, who has stood down to focus on his new role as Bluefield Development’s managing director. Image: Solar Energy UK.

Solar Energy UK has named Matt Black, non-executive director at  UK-based greentech startup Solivus as its new chairman.

Black, who has more than a decade of experience in the solar sector, takes over from Jonathan Selwyn, who was recently appointed managing director of investment group Bluefield Development, and is now stepping down to dedicate more time to the new role.

Addionally, the trade body has also brought on two new vice chairs: Christelle Barnes, UK manager at smart energy group SolarEdge, and Gareth Williams, managing director of solar intsallation, monitoring and maintenance specialist Caplor Group.

Having started his career at Credit Suisse, Black went back to university in 2010 to gain an MSc in Environmental Technology and Energy Policy from Imperial College, London. He has since held senior roles at developer Foresight Group and investor Armstrong Capital Management, and has been a director at Solar Energy UK since 2016. 

Solar Power Portal caught up with the new chair to talk about his move into the renewables sector more than a decade ago, the trade body’s preparations for COP26, and the opportunities that lay ahead for the industry as the UK moves towards its net-zero emissions target. 

 

You began your career in structured investments at Credit Suisse, what made you take the leap from investment to renewables?

While I was at university the solar industry was not that central to my thoughts, but energy was something that I’ve always been interested in. It is a core human need, and at an interesting point between a heavily regulated policy driven market, and also one that is central to financial markets. I spent my academic career focused on policy, environment, and international relations around oil and gas, where there is obviously a lot of action. In my time at Credit Suisse, I was focused more on structured derivatives. Over 10 years ago, I made a conscious decision to change tack, and that was down to recognising the availability of global capital, and looking for opportunities where it could be used more purposefully. I wanted to play a role recognising my environmental and social beliefs and enabling that capital to be put to use.

One of the key things that I’m proud of both personally, with organisations that I’ve worked within, and the industry as a whole, has been taking solar from being a relatively novel, niche technology to one which has matured, and now one we can see that is very mainstream, so that much of the solar capacity in the UK now is large scale, owned by institutional investors, by pension funds and insurance companies. We’re seeing the solar industry as much more integral to the energy industry overall and looking at new capacity coming online.

What has almost a decade working in the industry taught you about how solar has evolved, and how are you going to use that knowledge and experience as chairman of Solar Energy UK?

I’ve had the experience of speaking to investors in the early days, and of the mainstream energy sector who at that point saw solar as untried and untested and had concerns about the technology, now moving to a place where that viability has been evidenced wholeheartedly, you can see across the globe now. One of the things that I’ve been fortunate to benefit from is having experience as an investor and I have sat on the developer side too.

My work in more recent years has been consulting with various developers in the utility scale and commercial space and having a breadth of experience across utility scale, commercial and more recently, residential solar. As an entire industry there is a lot going on, but many of us can get caught up and focused on the specific areas that we are working on. Having had that breadth of experience and that constant engagement with everyone from panel manufacturers, EPCs, installers, investors, developers, and asset owners, I think it stands me in good stead to be able to understand the challenges that many of those actors are facing as well as the opportunities in the sector, and to be able to help best represent them within the organisation.

Looking at 2021, what can we expect you to be working on?

We’re moving to a period of post-subsidy. There has been a slowdown in installation over recent years following the removal of certain ROCs, but I think that we are now seeing significant additional capacity coming online through new business models and new routes to market, and that is continuing to evidence the maturity of the sector. There is work to do to ensure that solar is playing that significant role within the market.

There’s a significant opportunity for the government to showcase its ambitions to the globe around net-zero and climate change at COP26 and supporting new technology in the industry has been at the forefront of that. I think the UK solar industry historically has been a leader in taking a niche technology and having it adopted by mainstream utilities. From around 2013 to 2017, the UK succeeded in evidencing the way that mainstream utilities and institutional capital could come into their space, building up the approaches to contracting, to installation, to ownership and asset management that gave third parties confidence in that space.

As to what Solar Energy UK are doing, COP26 is a central aspect that we’re working towards with the ambitions of the industry. Reaching 40GW by 2030 is a key ambition that we’re working around. Tripling capacity over the next 10 years is a wholly possible, but still ambitious target the industry is working towards, so there is going to be some work around that that is going to be released shortly. And then, of course, residential, commercial and utility scale, there is a work plan focused on capital and the grid in relation to utility scale routes to market, corporate PPAs in the commercial rooftop sector, and then the residential sector.

I think that there’s continuing work to do around the Green Homes Grant and VAT and supporting new homes having solar as a starting place. So there’s significant work that is being done, lobbying the government and developing best practice, and then ironing out issues with the grid and the regulators.

Do you have any more clarity on what is happening with the Green Homes Grant or what is happening with support for the solar sector?

There has been a lot of analysis around the budget, and there were obviously significant commitments and moves forward around climate change and various innovation grants being progressed. I would not go as far as saying it’s a missed opportunity, but a number of aspects, which are particularly of interest to solar, weren’t put into as much detail as they could have been. However, there are a raft of consultations, policies and developments that we are aware of that are progressing. I think that not everything needs to necessarily be captured within the Budget.

Specifically around the Green Homes Grant, we are working to ensure that no solar installers are left out of pocket as a result of the schemes and administrative issues. We remain in conversation to secure funding for green home improvements in the future, be that an extension of the Green Homes Grant or by other schemes. I think that there’s nothing at this point that I’m able to announce as to the outcome of that, but I know that it is a very active conversation that is progressing.

Around 545MW of solar generation capacity was added in the UK last year, up 27% on 2019. What is your prediction for 2021?

I would hope that we exceed that. Everything that I’m seeing from the industry at the moment is pointing in that direction, but I’m not foolhardy enough to give you a number because I’m sure to be wrong! Certainly, though, the only way is up.

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