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Current± Asks the Experts: SSE’s Cave-Bigley talks utility-scale solar and storage

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By Richard Cave-Bigley
09 January 2023

Solar & Battery

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Current± Asks the Experts: SSE’s Cave-Bigley talks utility-scale solar and storage

The solar and storage sectors in the UK have expanded dramatically in recent years, with 730MW of solar PV installed in 2021 alone for example.

Energy giant SSE aims to be a key contributor to this growth, owning and operating 4GW of renewable assets in the UK and Ireland, with significant growth plans for its emerging solar and battery storage business.

Current± caught up with SSE Solar & Battery’s director Richard Cave-Bigley to find out about how the company’s long history of energy generation is allowing it to carve out its own niche in this nascent – but fast growing – sector, and what its next steps are.

SSE has a long history in energy generation, but how is it making the jump to battery energy storage?

SSE has always been at the forefront of renewables innovation. You can trace our hydro heritage back to the 1940s when our engineers brought electricity to the Highlands for the first time, through a network of hydro dams that still provide green power today. SSE is investing £25 billion by 2030 in the low carbon infrastructure we need in the UK and Ireland; and we expect to increase renewable generation five-fold by 2030 – including solar.

As we deliver that renewables-led system, efficient energy storage becomes essential. That’s one of the reasons why we’re so committed to our battery programme, as it will ultimately help deliver significant value for SSE and society.

In terms of how we turn to battery and solar markets, we have actually been active in these markets for the past three years, building a new business from the ground up and this is now one of the fastest growing parts of SSE. We started with our existing capabilities and expertise in developing large power infrastructure in our core markets (UK and Ireland) but recognised early that we needed to augment this with new skills, knowledge, and supply chain.

This year alone we’ve doubled the size of our solar and battery team to more than 60 people. In the last few months, we’ve begun construction work at our first 50MW battery storage site at Salisbury with Wartsila, and the asset should be fully operational in autumn 2023. And we’re currently working on nearly 2GW across the two technologies in our core markets (700MW of mature projects, and about 1.2GW of prospects in development).

Some of these projects are on old thermal sites (e.g. decommissioned coal sites like Ferrybridge), and others are on new sites we’ve acquired. We also work closely with our colleagues in wind and hydro – helping them explore how we can potentially co-locate solar and battery with wind in the future.

How has SSE’s previous steps into clean energy technologies helped it launch this new segment of the business?

SSE’s history in wind and hydro means that we can bring scale, reputation, finance and market knowledge to this new segment. All of these have helped us in building a new growth business within the group.

Our scale, trusted brand and reputation for delivery are really important in attracting strategic partners in the supply chain and in engaging with local communities. We also have the necessary financial backing from SSE Group, and as mentioned it’s investing £25 billion to 2030 to help society get to net zero. These points then help us in attracting a talented team in a competitive market. Finally, the knowledge SSE has of UK energy and power markets has been invaluable in understanding the landscape and putting together business cases for the future.

How is SSE building in key ESG considerations into its solar and storage pipeline?

ESG is embedded throughout the business – from the way we think about which opportunities to pursue to the partners we choose to work with. We’ve taken a leadership role becoming for instance, the first company in the world to develop a ‘Just transition’ strategy that is aimed at ensuring workers and communities get a fair deal from the energy transition. We are also the largest issuer of green bonds in the FTSE-100.

We oppose any kind of modern slavery, and we have policies in place to only work with supply chain partners who share our values. We are active members of Solar Energy UK and its Solar Stewardship Initiative, and we want to use our voice to ensure the industry is doing all it can to strive for the highest possible levels of transparency and traceability within the solar supply chain.

SSE is strongly committed to protecting the natural environment in which it constructs and operates assets; and we are working with third party experts and NGOs to identify the most appropriate biodiversity projects and understand how these can be maintained.

We also strive to make a positive and meaningful contribution in the communities where we have projects – including through such considerations, for example, as community funding.

What policy support does the solar and storage sector require to continue its expansion?

UK renewables have prospered previously when we have clear and consistent government policies.

A key lesson of the current energy crisis is that we now need to go further and faster in building a homegrown energy system. The ongoing energy affordability crisis will continue to feature this winter as an immediate priority for policy makers, but the need for cheaper, cleaner, and more secure homegrown energy has never been more pressing.

This energy crisis has been caused by the spiralling costs of imported gas. The British Energy Security Strategy provided a welcome commitment to increasing the UK’s solar capacity and to planning reform. One example though where policy impacts directly on ambitions is the recent debate on how much farmland should be taken up by solar sites. The Climate Change Committee has estimated that the UK will need between 75-90GW of solar by 2050. Solar Energy UK analysis shows the level of solar farm deployment consistent with this would account for around 0.3% of UK land. This is far less, for example, than the amount currently occupied by golf courses. So, we believe the two goals of energy and food security are totally compatible and achievable with the right support from policy makers.

The prize for the UK is significant – if we get this right we can go some way to solving the energy crisis, tackle climate change and protect families and businesses from further shocks in the future.

What’s next for SSE’s solar and storage arm?

We want to grow and deliver on net zero. Of course, a lot of that is about developing and delivering our pipeline of projects. But innovation is also key to becoming truly a leading business in this part of the market. We’re working on co-location opportunities as mentioned above, together with a range of areas of innovation in technology, commercial models and how we deliver.

On a more personal note, I want us to continue to attract the brightest and best talent out there. We have a compelling offering as one of the few energy corporates with a strong balance sheet, with real depth in the UK market, and with a great company culture and purpose. If you want your day job to be helping the country get to net zero, then get in touch!

Article first features in Current+ on 05/12/2022, written by Molly Lempriere, Editor, Current±, featuring thoughts and insights from Richard Cave-Bigley, Managing Director, SSE Solar & Battery.