Scotland has long been at the forefront of renewable energy thanks to its abundance of wind, rain, fast flowing tides and crashing waves. Until now there has been relatively little commercial scale solar development – perhaps not a great surprise given that sunshine is not our most abundant resource.

Although over 40% of electricity used in Scotland currently comes from renewables, solar production accounts for less than 2% of this.

However, a new trend of large scale solar sites is emerging thanks to the increased efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) panels and a reduction in cost of these panels.

The last 18 months have seen commercial sites in Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, Angus and Aberdeenshire secure planning permission, and there is now over 100 MW of consented commercial solar development in Scotland.

Although it varies from site to site, generally speaking you need between five to seven acres of land per mega watt of electricity generation.  Preferred sites will usually be large south facing areas of open ground unaffected by shading.  So far, large scale commercial solar schemes have received generally positive treatment through the planning system. Aberdeenshire Council, for example, has considered ten ground mounted solar schemes in the last 18 months and all of these have been approved. While some of these are for relatively small schemes, its still paints a very positive picture, and one that developers of onshore wind would no doubt look on enviously.

A similar pattern emerged in England, where solar development is more established - although still relatively new compared to other technologies. However, a series of planning permission refusals, both at the application and appeal stage, indicate that securing consent for solar development is becoming more difficult. A similar pattern may well emerge in Scotland.

Given the scale of commercial solar schemes, and the fact that they are usually located on more exposed sites, landscape and visual impacts can be a key consideration for planning.  Another issue that can arise is the loss of agricultural land - Scottish Government planning policy has a presumption against the loss of prime agricultural land.

Solar development should not sterilise land as it can still be used for grazing, and a number of schemes have looked to use either poor quality agricultural land, or land that has previously been development - such as former airfields.

Solar development does not benefit from the same level of specific planning policy support at either a national or local level as more established technologies, such as onshore wind. For example, neither the Scottish Government SSP nor NPF3 make specific reference to solar energy.  The absence of solar specific policies means that developers need to ensure that the benefits of their schemes are properly set out and understood by the planning authority.

Aside from planning, a particular issue for solar development in Scotland is securing a grid connection. A number of developers are tackling this issue by siting new solar development next to existing or proposed onshore wind farms. The benefit of this approach is that the solar farm can share the grid connection with the wind farm, and take advantage of any spare capacity – as wind turbines generate most power in low pressure conditions whilst solar arrays are most productive in high pressure conditions. Issues with this approach tend to centre on the terms of the grid connection, and liabilities between the operators of the wind farm and the solar array. Careful consideration needs to be given to how these are addressed.

Solar energy is the new kid on the block, but as the cost of photovoltaic panels continues to fall, so do the opportunities in Scotland increase. Despite Scotland’s apparent lack of sunshine, we have long day light hours that compensate and make solar power a viable contributor to the renewable energy mix.

Burness Paull currently advises on solar development throughout Scotland, including negotiating arrangements between solar and onshore wind. For more information please get in touch.