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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 25 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Community Wealth Building, Point of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Solar Energy


Contents


Solar Energy

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-2299 in the name of Fergus Ewing on Scotland’s fair share, the potential of solar energy in Scotland. This debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I ask those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes Solar Energy Scotland’s policy agenda, Scotland’s fair share: Solar’s role in achieving net zero in Scotland, published in the run-up to COP26, which sets out the potential for solar energy to play a much greater role in Scotland’s low-carbon energy mix; understands that Scotland has levels of solar irradiation that can be effectively captured and that, compared to other nearby countries on the same latitude, such as Denmark, Scotland is behind in equivalent levels of solar technology deployment; considers that a number of policy matters within the control of the Scottish Government, including permitted development rights and business rates, could help the sector grow significantly; recognises what it sees as the ability of solar energy systems to work as a good companion to wind to make more effective, efficient use of the electricity grid and storage network; considers that, due to reported projections for solar to be the UK’s cheapest form of energy this decade, and to have the unique capability to be deployed at all scales, solar is vital to supporting an affordable energy mix, and a just transition, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to urgently assess the potential for a 2030 solar deployment target of a minimum of 4GW, and accompanying policy changes to embrace and enable this low-cost mature technology, to help tackle the climate emergency and provide investment and jobs in communities up and down the country, including in the Inverness and Nairn constituency.

17:11  

I am most grateful to all the members who signed my motion, and those who have who stayed on will participate in the debate. In fact, believe it or not, this is the first-ever full debate on solar energy in the Scottish Parliament. That might be because, Scotland’s weather being what it is, most people assume that the ways to harness renewable energy here are better if they involve the wind and the rain. However, that is not so. Although—to coin, or, perhaps, adapt a phrase—Scotland will never become the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, we nonetheless have an enormous resource that is simply not being used.

I am indebted to Solar Energy Scotland, which has provided an excellent briefing paper called “Scotland’s Fair Share: Solar’s role in achieving net zero in Scotland”, for this illustration of that resource. It said:

“If all the sun’s energy that hits the island of Hoy could be collected this would meet all of Scotland's energy needs”.

Solar can generate both electricity and heat. It is modular, so it can be deployed on a micro or a macro scale. It combines well with other resources, particularly wind and hydro—after all, the sun often shines when the wind does not blow.

The purpose of the debate is to shine some light on solar—excuse the pun; it was, indeed, pretty poor—but also more seriously to encourage the Scottish Government to support its development with high ambition, strong resolution and, which is most important of all, in my experience as a minister, hard graft.

First, solar is now the cheapest form of energy, prices having fallen by 60 per cent in the past 10 years. Secondly, Scotland will need a flourishing solar sector to help to tackle fuel poverty. Thirdly, solar can help to secure energy independence at a time of international instability and, finally, it can help to reduce our carbon emissions. Once set up, solar panels will operate at minimal costs for in excess of 30 years. Solar Energy Scotland calls on the Scottish Government in its energy strategy review to set a target of 4GW of solar energy by 2030, and a higher ambition of 6GW. If we did so, and I hope that the minister will indicate whether he is inclined to do so, we would be mirroring the European Union commitment, because it is for 600GW by 2030. The EU says that its policy is for a

“Massive, rapid deployment of renewable energy”

and that

“Solar energy will be the kingpin of this effort”.

It says that

“Panel by panel, the infinite energy of the sun will help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Moreover, according to Solar Energy Scotland, that achievement, would bring in more than 8,500 jobs to Scotland. Solar should become a major component of our energy provision. The opportunity exists now and it should be grasped.

I am grateful to Fergus Ewing for taking my intervention and I congratulate him on securing the debate.

The benefits that Fergus Ewing has highlighted are ones that I think will increasingly become recognised. We have just concluded a debate about community wealth building. Given the cost, the job opportunities and the revenue potential that exists, does he see solar energy as a real example of where community wealth building could be anchored?

The member is right. Furthermore, I read today that Turkey has saved $7 billion by using wind and solar power to replace imported fossil fuels.

The asks are as follows: to extend permitted development rights to up to 5MW for rooftop solar projects; to exempt onsite solar and storage from business rates, or at least to put solar on a level playing field with gas-powered combined heat and power; to enable farmers, crofters and landowners to benefit by making claims under a new greening measure to equip them with solar power, which would get things moving, not least in Mr McArthur’s constituency; to support solar in land-use strategies; and, lastly, to set up a ministerially chaired working group with industry representatives to drive all of that forward.

In England and Wales, commercial-scale rooftop solar projects do not typically require full planning permission. That might explain why the sector has experienced rapid expansion there. That also needs to be the case in Scotland. Interestingly, the EU is committed to shortening to three months the length of time for solar approvals for rooftop installations. I hope that our esteemed planners are listening.

Here in Scotland, we should surely match the EU’s high levels of ambition. A working group on solar energy that was established and chaired by an energy minister would be a great way to take that forward, working with industry.

Manufacturing could be a significant bottleneck, particularly bearing in mind our shortage of manufacturing skills. What is Mr Ewing’s view on our manufacturing capability for solar production?

I will give you a bit of time back for the interventions, Mr Ewing.

Tess White has raised an important point. It is a fact that most solar panels are manufactured not in Scotland or, indeed, in Europe but in China. That can change, but I suspect that economies of scale would make that difficult. I think that there is a need for Scotland to have a skills strategy to go along with what we might do in this area. That, too, should mirror the EU’s policy, which is forward looking, in this regard.

The United Kingdom Government has an important role, through the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. That role is, essentially, to ensure that there is fairer and more sufficient grid capacity, and to ensure that consumers, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, are not hit so hard.

I will curtail my remarks to avoid incurring your wrath, Presiding Officer, and skip on to the conclusion.

We can make swift progress if there is the will—ministerial will, to be frank. That means rooftop solar on public and commercial buildings. That is the low-hanging fruit—albeit at high altitudes, so to speak. Let us make that happen. Grid rules can be changed if Ofgem has the will and backing of the United Kingdom Government. I have not seen much sign of that, but that does not mean that there is any reason why it should not happen. It should.

We also need farmers and crofters to be empowered to go green in a real way through extension of the greening scheme. Regulations for small businesses need to be simplified.

In conclusion, I strongly encourage the Scottish Government to embrace the power of the sun and thereby to grant Scotland a greener, cheaper and brighter future.

17:19  

I congratulate my colleague Fergus Ewing on securing this evening’s important debate and on his excellent opening speech.

Currently, solar power is underutilised in Scotland’s energy mix. It now presents a significant renewable opportunity as we transition to net zero. For too long, Scotland was seen as being unfavourable for solar energy generation due to the misconception that electricity-generating solar photovoltaic cells need heat and cloudless skies to produce energy. In fact, what is required is light or solar irradiance—in other words the amount of electromagnetic radiation received from the sun per square metre. The core technology is hardly new. My former colleague Colin Campbell had solar panels fitted on his Kilbarchan roof way back in 1984. Although the cost was astronomical at the time, he has not had an electricity bill in two decades.

Despite their great potential, geothermal and hydro power may take years to develop. However, solar energy, as Fergus Ewing’s motion makes clear, is uniquely capable of deployment to the scale required and is the cheapest form of renewable energy at this time, with great job-creating potential. Developments can be planned, panels constructed and installed relatively quickly and easily, for example, through the adoption of rooftop solar panels for households and small and medium-sized enterprises.

I therefore agree with Solar Energy Scotland’s calls for the sector to be given greater attention. Under European Commission plans, all new buildings in the bloc might soon be fitted with solar roof panels to turbocharge a drive for renewable energy. That would reduce the demand for fossil fuels, particularly Russian oil and gas. I actually suggested such a measure to the Australian Government way back in 2003. However, at the time it was considered that photovoltaic cell efficiency was not high enough to justify the cost in those days, when climate change was not a consideration.

Solar technology has advanced significantly over the past two decades and, when I wrote to the minister just last month on the subject, his positive response was that such a measure will be explored in the forthcoming housing bill. I welcome that. Indeed, we already see solar panels in local authority and housing association new builds.

In the meantime, there are other policy changes that the Scottish and UK Governments can make to stimulate investment in solar energy. As was argued by Fergus Ewing, aligning Scotland with England and Wales on permitted development rights and business rates for solar power projects would almost certainly lead to an increase in installations across the commercial and industrial sector. Scottish ministers have already indicated that they will review the rules for solar installations as part of wider changes to permitted developments.

With regard to ground-mounted large-scale facilities that generate solar power and feed it into the grid, Solar Energy Scotland’s report is clear that there are few natural constraints in Scotland, although two proposed developments in my constituency are meeting some local opposition.

Unfortunately, it is still the case that renewable energy firms pay massive fees to connect to the national grid. In fact, Scottish generators pay the highest grid connection rates in Europe. It costs £7.36 per megawatt hour in the north of Scotland and £4.70 per megawatt hour in the south, whereas in much of England and Wales it costs only 49p and, in southern England, generators are actually paid to connect to the grid. Therefore, I ask the minister to again demand of the UK Government that it lower transmission charges, which are the biggest barrier to Scotland delivering on its renewables potential. Of course, it would help if Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour MSPs—whose Governments introduced and maintain the discriminatory charges—also spoke out on Scotland’s behalf.

The solar industry believes that agricultural policy inadvertently disincentivises use of farmland for solar power generation because it does not entitle farmers to greening payments under the basic payment scheme. However, I feel uneasy about extending the same reward to farmers for energy generation that they receive for producing crops at a time when one of Europe’s major bread baskets has been impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Monday, Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Sector Council said that there is no proper plan in the UK for a future with disrupted food supplies. In that context, agrivoltaics—use of farmland for simultaneous production of crops and generation of power—has shown promise in East Asia and is being trialled in Europe. Installed directly above crops, panels protect against hail or frost, provide shade and increase the electrical yield of photovoltaic panels. Roll-out should be actively researched and considered in Scotland.

Solar energy must be integral part of our climate emergency response. Solar Energy Scotland’s requests are reasonable and straightforward, and I trust that the Scottish Government will help to make them a reality, thereby enabling Scotland’s solar industry to really take off. We all want Scotland to be a front runner in renewable energy generation.

I urge the Scottish Government to be ambitious and to consider solutions that are being trialled elsewhere, including fitting solar panels in all new buildings and exploring the promise of agrivoltaics.

17:24  

I congratulate Fergus Ewing on bringing the debate to the Parliament. It is not before time. I have genuinely never understood why solar does not feature more in projections of our future renewable energy mix as we aim to transition to net zero by 2045.

Happily, the industry seems to be powering on nevertheless. In April 2020, so much solar energy was produced that it met almost 30 per cent of United Kingdom electricity demand. The north-east recently celebrated the potential St Fergus solar farm, which could be the UK’s largest solar project if built, powering 15,000 homes and 20,000 electric vehicles per year and, crucially, offsetting 720,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over 40 years. Also in my region, we have Mackie’s of Scotland, which has 7,000 solar panels that help it to generate twice as much energy as it uses. The rest is sold into the grid as green energy.

The motion mentions the Scottish Government’s role and that is where we need to see action to avoid being left behind. Our friends elsewhere are seizing the opportunity. For example, Germany has announced plans to install 200GW of solar energy by 2035. Portugal is looking to build a 12,000 panel floating solar park to power around 1,500 households. The Danes are already running seasonal thermal storage facilities to store solar generated power.

It is not surprising that that is happening. Fergus Ewing pointed out that the cost of rooftop solar has fallen by about 60 per cent since 2010 and he will know that the cost of utility-scale solar has fallen by 88 per cent in the same period. To respond to Liam McArthur’s intervention, if Scotland realised Solar Energy UK’s ambition of producing 6GW by 2030, nearly 9,000 jobs could be created. That would aid the fair and managed transition of workers from other industries, particularly in the north-east.

I am surprised that the Scottish Government has set a legally binding target of net zero by 2045, which is five years earlier than the UK’s target, yet has failed to set out how it intends to achieve that using this technology, even though it has the levers to do so, as the motion rightly states. It has also failed to make much progress. According to Solar Energy UK, at the end of 2020, Scotland had only 3 per cent of the UK’s total deployed solar generation capacity. Furthermore, I lodged a parliamentary question and discovered from the answer that four-fifths of Scottish Government buildings are not fitted with solar panels. That is awful. We have huge estates of public buildings, as Fergus Ewing rightly said, including the NHS and our schools. I cannot understand why the Scottish Government has been so slow to grasp this opportunity.

That matters, not least because the Scottish Government has to be developing its supply chain now. Tess White’s intervention was absolutely spot on. None of this will work if we do not also have the competent skills base to design, build, install and maintain the infrastructure, whether by transition from other industries or developing new skills through our schools and further and higher education institutions. That is why I support the motion, because I am afraid that the Scottish Government has been caught napping here. To reach net zero we need ambition, effective planning and strategising.

Graeme Dey rose—

I am afraid that I am right at the end of my time, Mr Dey.

The evidence suggests that hitherto the Government has been quicker on knee-jerk, playing-to-the-gallery announcements, such as Kenny Gibson’s giving only half the picture on transmission charges, rather than a full consideration of how all energy generation technologies can work together as part of the energy mix in a managed transition to net zero.

The motion is right. The levers to make this happen sit firmly within the control of the Scottish Government and it is imperative that it acts urgently to assess deployment and policy changes to embrace and enable this low-cost, mature technology. Thank you.

17:28  

I thank Fergus Ewing for lodging his timely motion. We all know that the clock is ticking if we are to stop the climate emergency becoming a climate catastrophe. Our energy policy is absolutely key to that journey to net zero.

Labour believes that that policy needs four goals at its heart. The first should be to reduce our energy waste by properly insulating existing properties and building new ones to zero-carbon standards, so that they do not require retrofitting in the future.

The second goal should be a programme of mass decarbonising heating, but one in which the burden does not land on the shoulders of those who can least afford it.

The third goal should be to achieve a balanced energy supply from variable sources. That includes not just a rapid growth in renewables, but a recognition of the need for better energy security. By 2050, half of our demand will still be met by oil and gas and there will still be a need for a low-carbon baseload energy—which means that we need a grown-up debate on nuclear power.

The fourth goal should be a growth in renewables that goes beyond the recent focus on onshore wind and better delivers opportunities for offshore wind and, of course, for solar energy, which makes Fergus Ewing’s motion and the subject of the debate all the more important.

As Fergus Ewing acknowledges, Scotland is behind other countries on solar technology deployment. At the end of 2020, Scotland had only around 3 per cent of the UK’s total deployed solar generation capacity—far below the per capita level for the rest of the UK. That untapped potential means that there is a unique opportunity for growth.

That is why Labour very much supports the call from Solar Energy UK for the Scottish Government to commit to and, more importantly, to put in place the actions needed to deliver a 2030 Scottish solar deployment ambition of 4GW to 6GW, with further growth in the following decade as we move to achieve net zero by 2045. That is why we backed the national planning framework for not just delivering warm words in support of renewables, as the current draft does, but giving clear and practical direction, such as raising and, indeed, removing the threshold of permitted development rights. That is why we want to see fiscal measures to support more solar energy being used to power our public buildings and the reform of business rates to incentivise larger installations. Otherwise, we risk continuing to fall behind the rest of the UK, where that reform is taking place.

Having that ambition and, importantly, those practical measures to grow solar energy, along with investment from a Scottish renewables fund that Labour has called for—using the £700 million from the ScotWind leasing round—would mean that we could grow Scotland’s renewable energy supply chains, so that the growth in solar energy leads to a growth in Scottish jobs. Solar Energy UK has said that solar power could create more than 8,500 new jobs in Scotland by the end of the decade, but that will happen only if we do not keep repeating the mistakes of the past.

Fergus Ewing was right to say that perhaps Scotland’s climate means that we will not become the Saudi Arabia of solar power, but the problem is that the past promises that we would become the Saudi Arabia of renewables jobs have fallen flat, as fewer than a quarter of the promised 120,000 jobs in renewables have been created. The recent ScotWind round that leased Scotland’s sea beds on the cheap failed to include legally binding guarantees on jobs. Those opportunities and profits were also leased almost entirely to overseas-owned multinationals. Scotland will get none of the billions of profit and a pitiful level of rent. That was a missed opportunity. Ninety-nine per cent of Scotland’s onshore wind is also in the hands of private businesses.

Increasing untapped opportunities from solar energy production presents a chance to do things differently, to create genuine opportunities for a new approach when it comes to ownership, including more community and co-operatively owned local renewable energy projects. That would ensure that the jobs, the profits and other benefits are returned directly to the local community. A good example of that is the Edinburgh Community Solar Co-operative. It owns and operates 30 solar panels throughout Edinburgh and the profits from those are invested in community projects across the city that promote sustainability and renewable energy, including a grant scheme for community-focused organisations.

As a Co-operative Party MSP, that is a model that I very much support as part of a genuine, just transition to cleaner, greener energy policy; an ambition that we all need to grasp.

17:33  

I apologise to the chamber if I need to leave before the end of the debate as I am hosting a reception in the Parliament.

I, too, offer warm thanks to Fergus Ewing for introducing the debate. I cannot believe that this is the first time since devolution that the Scottish Parliament has debated solar, but that perhaps emphasises the fact that it has been something of a Cinderella technology for many years.

The reduction in costs that we are starting to see should now usher in a new solar revolution and the Scottish Government should make solar a strong building block of its forthcoming energy strategy this autumn. The installed Scottish solar capacity of 380MW is clearly just a fraction of the 4GW to 6GW that is possible, but that potential will not be realised without, in effect, a new deal for solar, including changes to planning, building standards, non-domestic rates, grid access and agricultural subsidies that Mr Ewing and others have already outlined.

Targets have worked for energy generation in Scotland since the early days of devolution, sending clear signals to investors. Setting a solar target should be considered in the forthcoming energy strategy. I also hope that Ofgem will facilitate the investment in the grid that is needed to allow all of Scotland’s renewables to make their contribution to UK climate and energy targets. We cannot afford to be pitting one technology against another.

While the national planning framework 4 elevates the consideration of climate change to the top of planners’ minds, it is not yet consistent on the detail, with policy 19 on renewables being a problem that the planning minister has committed to fixing. Permitted development policy, which has already been mentioned, is a case in point. There are some artificial limits in Scotland on what solar can be installed on a roof space without requiring a planning application. There are challenges here and there is much policy that needs to be tidied up.

With electricity costs set to rise even further, for many households solar will be the most important technology that could be installed to directly reduce electricity bills. The most effective way to empower householders is to turn consumers into generators. At a time when all decarbonisation pathways, from transport to heating, rely heavily on electricity, solar gives householders the opportunity to be masters of an entire domestic electricity system in their homes, incorporating smart meters, smart car chargers, water heating and household batteries to enable people to balance supply and demand, ultimately reducing dependency on the national grid.

Thus far, though, solar installations have by and large been piecemeal and individual householder led. Installers tell me that the Home Energy Scotland system for accessing finance can be bureaucratic and time-consuming. We need to see a change here and the street by street, community by community roll-out of solar would help to meet the scale of the opportunity. I hope that the forthcoming local heat and energy efficiency strategies will be able to plan for how this could be achieved in each council area.

There is good precedent. During the early days of the feed-in tariff, Stirling Council installed solar on most of its socially rented housing stock, to the point that you could easily count the number of council houses in any street by their solar rooftops. However, the fact that most owner-occupied houses in those streets remain without solar, shows that the roll-out has been far from universal so far. Families need support right now; they need that roll-out street by street rather than by the individual application process that we have seen so far.

Solar has the brightest of futures, but it will take tweaks, reforms and renewed leadership at both local and national levels to ensure that every part of Scotland benefits.

17:37  

I, too, thank Fergus Ewing for securing the debate. Like many others in the chamber, and Mr Ruskell, I am surprised to find that this is the first parliamentary debate on solar energy. I can assure Mr Ewing, however, that while it may not have been discussed here in the chamber, the cross-party group on science and technology has held events and hosted speakers on solar power and opportunities over the past 10 years. Those have included Professor Neil Robertson, who is currently chair of molecular materials at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Scottish Institute for Solar Energy Research, or SISER. I am proud to say that Professor Robertson grew up in Coltness, in my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw.

I attended the “Transforming Scotland with solar energy” event in the Scottish Parliament in May 2014 and attended a SISER conference at the University of Strathclyde in my role as vice-convener of the cross-party group on science and technology.

Like Mr Ewing, I see huge potential for Scotland in this area, for reducing carbon emissions, achieving net zero and for the creation of job opportunities as part of a just transition. With energy security at the forefront of our concerns, due to the war in Ukraine and the soaring prices that contribute to the cost of living crisis, and alongside the environmental imperative, we must consider and act on a solar future for Scotland.

An analysis piece in New Scientist just last month, by Michael Le Page, posited that the current updated UK energy security strategy would not provide enough energy or security going forward. He questioned the UK Government policy of ignoring quick wins like insulation, solar and onshore wind installations, instead favouring expensive nuclear power over renewables. To me, this approach does not stack up against our shared climate commitments and I do not believe that more nuclear is the way forward. The current UK strategy favours expensive nuclear power over what are the cheapest forms of energy available in the UK, as was demonstrated by Mr Ewing.

Does the member not concede that nuclear is one of the cheapest forms of energy generation once you scale it over the number of years it produces?

No, I do not; I think that the lead time for building new nuclear installations will virtually wipe out those benefits. We have the ability to do solar and onshore wind now and they are the cheapest and most easily accessible ways forward. Why wait 10 to 15 years for low-carbon energy, when it can be done now at a faction of the cost and time?

Scotland can do better, for the sake of our environment and our finances. Solar research and technology are increasing and improving at an exponential rate. I remember Professor Robertson telling me that he had been an early adopter of solar—much like our colleague, Mr Campbell—in his domestic home when feed-in tariffs were at a premium but, because of the rapid increases in the efficiency of photovoltaic cells, the newer installations were as financially beneficial as his own. So much more energy was being generated just a few short years later. The incredible speed of research and development in solar has made its way into domestic products.

For those who think only of solar panels in solar fields or retrofitted to buildings, the number of construction innovations must be understood. Those include solar roof tiles, solar bricks and even solar windows—which I saw myself in Taiwan—which have USB charging points on the window frames. There are endless possibilities, and the innovations exist. Just as silicon overtook cadmium panels, the development of perovskite tandem panels could reduce the carbon footprint even further. Research from Cornell University has shown that it can reduce the payback time of 1.52 years for current silicone panels to only 0.35 years with the development of these new panels, which have yet to make it to market, although I am sure that they will.

As New Scientist stated in its leader in March 2022, titled “Europe must tackle its energy crisis now or face a painful winter”, energy and solar power should be turbocharged.

17:42  

I add my congratulations to Fergus Ewing on securing time in the chamber to debate this very important topic.

As has been said, solar energy is in many ways the poor relation in renewables when we compare it to wind. While the shape of a white wind turbine has become synonymous with Scotland’s move towards renewable energy, solar has been markedly less visible. Perhaps it is only natural that Scotland’s weather would bring the wind turbine more to mind than the solar panel, but in a way that symbolises the problem. It is a regularly repeated myth that solar does not work in Scotland because we do not get enough sunny days. Indeed, today the sun is shining and the wind is blowing—the rain has been falling too but, unfortunately, we have yet to harness that source of energy. The idea that solar systems require strong direct sunlight to generate electricity is not based in fact. Solar does not require direct sunlight to generate power. At one point in February 2022, solar was providing more than 20 per cent of the UK’s energy.

We can project the electricity generation of the yield from a solar system annually accurately by using known sunrise and sunset times to calculate daylight hours. Solar Energy Scotland reports that solar systems could last for more than 30 years with professional maintenance. Solar is distinct from many other forms of renewables and in many ways is a far more flexible technology than wind or hydro. Although it is just about possible for an individual house owner or building owner to install a wind turbine on their property, it is an option that is really only available to farmers or owners of large industrial sites. However, solar panels can be easily integrated into individual homes when they are built or retrofitted into older buildings, as well as being deployed at substantial scale on solar farms.

Solar supports other sectors to diversify their incomes and create secure livelihoods. For example, we can talk about agriculture and installing solar farms on fallow land. Fallowing, as we know, helps to regenerate soil quality in order to increase productivity later, and biodiversity increases while land lays fallow. Solar farms on fallow land create productivity where it otherwise would not be and help the farmer to reduce their energy costs and improve the sustainability of their operations.

Every assessment of our ability to meet our targets for net zero recognises the need for a diverse range of technologies and energy sources. There is a serious risk that we are inadvertently or otherwise putting our net zero eggs in a small number of technological baskets and leaving others with great long-term potential behind—for example, tidal energy, home heating systems other than heat pumps, such as hydrogen, and the next generation of nuclear power, especially small modular nuclear reactors and advanced modular nuclear reactors. The cheapest electricity that is being generated now in the UK is generated from existing nuclear plants.

Does the member not acknowledge that, if the Romans had had nuclear power, we would still be looking after the waste? Is he prepared to factor in the costs of the several millennia of work needed to deal with nuclear waste?

It is quite apt that Mark Ruskell mentions the Romans because, frankly, when it comes to nuclear energy he is living in the past. The innovation in nuclear is so much more advanced, especially around small modular nuclear reactors.

Innovation thrives in an environment where there is a genuine diversity of ideas and approaches and, if the Scottish Government does not show that it is are open to a broad range of solutions to the challenge of climate change, opting instead to give certain technologies substantially more prominence, researchers and businesses will not have the confidence to invest in anything else.

It is a stark fact that, in all likelihood, none of the infrastructure generating our electricity today will still be doing so in 2050. Scotland’s nuclear capacity will be gone and the existing wind assets and natural gas power stations will have reached the end of their design life. We must take a wide approach; we must support innovation as part of that and we must give greater backing to solar energy.

I thank Fergus Ewing once again for bringing the debate to the chamber.

Before I call the next speaker, I advise that, due to the number of members who wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend it by up to 30 minutes. I invite Fergus Ewing to move a motion without notice.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Fergus Ewing]

Motion agreed to.

17:47  

It is a pleasure to speak in this extended debate. I congratulate Fergus Ewing, not only on securing the debate and getting this time in the chamber—and bringing some unexpected sunshine with him—but on the fact that so many members have taken part. That is encouraging and I have certainly learned a few things in the debate already.

When I saw that the motion and debate had been secured, I felt motivated to come and take part and listen tonight because of the work that I am doing with colleagues on the Net Zero Energy and Transport Committee—Liam Kerr and Mark Ruskell are also members. We are currently running an energy crisis inquiry looking at what needs to be done in the here and now as well as at longer-term actions. We will report on that shortly.

I was struck by comments that we heard from the fuel poverty charity Energy Action Scotland just a few weeks ago. It said that, unless the UK Government and the Scottish Government take bolder action now, there will be

“a catastrophic loss of life”—[Official Report, Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, 26 April 2022; c 23]

this winter. I think that that is something that is very much in the minds of all of us when we think about our casework—the emails from people reaching out to us for help and assurance. I come to this thinking very much about the cost of living crisis and how that interacts with the climate and nature emergencies.

The young people of Scotland very much keep our feet to the fire on this. It is a pleasure to be back doing school visits and hearing from young people. Before the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—I was doing a lot of that work. I have to say to all colleagues and all parties—I do so from the back benches; I do not get to speak in the chamber very often now—that we cannot just retreat to our party lines, our slogans and the usual banter. This is much more serious than any of that. We have to work together.

The Government has a massive job to do, as all Governments do, and the Net Zero Energy and Transport Committee has a very important role to play. In that committee, we try to leave our party politics at the door in order to work together. We need more of these debates because, frankly, since COP26 finished I feel like we have gone back to our business-as-usual approach, and we cannot have that. Quite often, the very important issues, as we are discussing tonight, are left to members’ business debates when they should be given Government time and Opposition party time. Let us look at that.

I welcome Monica Lennon’s comments. I think that she is absolutely right on that, but does that not mean that the member has to acknowledge the importance of nuclear energy and oil and gas in providing base load while we transition to renewables?

Maybe Liam Kerr wants to bring forward his own members’ business debate to get into that issue in much more detail. Tonight is about solar energy and, clearly, we need a robust plan for that. We need to get on with it, as the opportunity has been spelled out to all of us.

We have to look at where we are seeing pioneering work already. The solar farms in North Ayrshire, which have been pioneered by Scottish Labour, have not really been mentioned tonight. Hopefully, that work will continue and that innovation and good practice will be shared throughout Scotland. The work in North Ayrshire ties in nicely with the community wealth building agenda that we heard about in the chamber earlier. I congratulate Councillor Joe Cullinane on that work. It is pioneering and it also helps people with their energy bills.

There is groundbreaking work out there but, when I look at my emails and at what people are getting in touch with me about, I see that they do not want business as usual, That is why we had a digital day of action on Friday to stop the Jackdaw gas field. Liam Kerr is happy to see the Jackdaw gas field and the Cambo oilfield approved, but we cannot continue like that.

We want to see more democratic control of energy. The system in the market has completely failed. When we heard from the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets in the committee inquiry recently, we found out that there is just no protection for consumers. We all know that we cannot continue as we are. We need to work together during the transition. I know that I am out of time, but I took a brief intervention. The points about planning, skills and so on are very relevant. The message that we are hearing from our constituents, young and old, is that the future is ours to create, and we just have to get on and do it. The time to act is now.

17:51  

I may not be able to stay until the very end of the debate because it has been heavily oversubscribed and we are running over. I think that that is recognition of the importance of this issue. I congratulate Fergus Ewing on securing the debate, but I also say that it shames each and every one of us that, in 23 years of devolution, this is the first time we have debated this issue in the chamber. The strength of feeling that we have heard across the various parties shows how important it is. It should not have taken 23 years, but it is right that we join tonight to look at the opportunities in Scotland.

I asked to speak tonight for a couple of reasons. One is to put on record on the chamber floor what I put down in a motion that has been supported across political parties, which is to celebrate and recognise the amazing achievement of AES Solar in Moray on receiving the Queen’s award for enterprise in the sustainable development category. George Goudsmit and his team do outstanding work in Moray from their base in Forres. AES Solar is one of the oldest solar energy companies in western Europe and it has provided solar panels for our own Parliament building. In the last year, it has increased the number of employees from 22 to 32. It is a local business that goes from strength to strength. I was very proud to see it recognised as a recipient of the Queen’s award for enterprise, and I know that that pride was shared by George and all his staff. It was a richly deserved award.

In the short time that we have available, I also want to elaborate on some of the points that have been mentioned throughout the debate, and I am sure that the minister will respond to them. We have heard from a number of speakers about permitted developments and about non-domestic rates. I want to look at that a bit more in the round, because I think that we have heard from across the chamber that people believe that we should see changes there. What would those changes mean? Currently in Scotland, solar PV is subject to planning at 50kW, yet in England the level is already 20 times greater, at 1MW. The UK Government is currently looking, as part of its energy security strategy, to consult on further simplifying planning for solar. Already there is a gap and there is a risk that that gap could widen even further.

I understand from a briefing that I received for this debate that solar currently sits in phase 4 of the Scottish permitted development rights review. The fact that phase 2 has only just been released means that we could be years away from being part of the change that we have seen in England since 2015. I say that constructively to the minister, as I think that we have heard from around the chamber that this is an area that all parties would like to see movement on.

As Douglas Ross mentioned planning, does he agree that we need to properly resource our planning authorities? There has been around a 20 per cent reduction in the planning workforce and some of the technical skills that we have heard about tonight are very important. Does he agree that we have to support local government?

Presiding Officer, I should have said at the start that I, too, may have to leave before the end of the debate. Thank you for your permission to do that.

I thank Monica Lennon for that constructive intervention. I agree, and I speak as a former chairman of the Moray Council planning committee. That was a role that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that is hugely important. These are complex issues and, to ensure that members have the best possible information to determine applications, it is right that they have the full support and backing of officers.

Finally, in my last couple of seconds, I want to mention a very good briefing about skills that we all received ahead of today’s debate, because as well as the changes to permitted development and NDR, skills are an issue that has come up. I want to give the final word to a constituent of mine, Josh King, who works for AES Solar and is the Solar Energy Scotland vice-chair. His words, I think, are very important:

“The potential for solar in Scotland is huge, but a clear ambition and stable policy are vital to capitalise on the opportunity. Solar can be rapidly deployed at all scales, and the recent surge in demand—which we expect to continue—is already leading to a serious skills gap. We need to focus on skilled apprenticeships, as well as upskilling and retraining those transitioning from traditional energy and engineering industries. The roles are ready and waiting.”

I hope that we all agree with those words and I hope that the minister can respond to them in summing up.

17:56  

I thank Fergus Ewing for bringing forward the debate tonight. As co-convener of the cross-party group on renewable energy, I am delighted to see our renewables sector continuing to grow in strength.

I was also delighted to see the publication of Solar Energy Scotland’s policy paper, “Scotland’s Fair Share: Solar’s role in achieving net zero in Scotland”, which Douglas Ross mentioned. Only yesterday, we saw the energy price cap rise to a proposed £2,800. We need to scale up our renewables capability as quickly as we can.

I declare an interest: I live in Dunbar—sunny Dunny, as it is known—which is officially the sunniest place in Scotland. Therefore, I claim the national headquarters for Dunbar.

In its paper, Solar Energy Scotland calls on the Scottish Government to commit to a minimum target of 4GW of solar energy across the country by 2030, and to declare, as we have heard, an ambition to achieve 6GW. We have heard that forecast is for 6GW, with 3.5GW of deployment coming from ground-mounted solar, 1.5GW from domestic rooftops and 1GW from commercial rooftops.

Twelve years ago, in 2010, when I was council leader in East Lothian, we submitted plans for a £10 million investment in solar panels on our council buildings. Unfortunately, there was a change in administration and the proposal did not go forward at that stage. However, local authorities need to lead on this agenda.

Solar Energy Scotland further states:

“A specific solar deployment target of 4 to 6GW would ensure that solar technologies deliver their fair share of the clean energy required for Scotland to achieve its leading and legally binding commitments to 2030 on the way to a net zero economy by 2045.”

In the minister’s winding-up speech tonight, it would be good if he would comment on the policy requests in the paper and on whether Scottish Government would support an independent Scottish solar strategy.

The Solar Energy Scotland paper sets out the organisation’s policy asks, which are for a formal minimum target of 4GW, and an upper ambition of 6GW, of solar power in Scotland by 2030.

We have heard about building regulations, which are incredibly important. Planning rules should extend permitted development rights to rooftop solar projects of up to 5MW, and we should support a green recovery by exempting on-site solar and storage from non-domestic rates.

The other key point that I want to mention is investment in natural capital. Farmers and landowners should be permitted to claim for solar projects on agricultural land under the basic payment scheme if they can meet natural capital and biodiversity objectives. Grid infrastructure costs should spread the cost of electricity grid reinforcement between solar, energy storage and wind generation technologies.

The paper mentions the broader benefits in our move towards a just transition. The solar energy sector can create resilient, long-term and sustainable jobs. Solar Energy Scotland analysis suggests that deploying 6GW of solar in Scotland could support at least 3,000 full-time equivalent skilled and high-quality jobs, with the potential for many more throughout the supply chain, thus making a wider economic impact. There is also major job creation potential in emerging energy storage technology. I am fortunate to have Sunamp in my area. Sunamp is an innovative battery storage company that has recently received support from the Scottish National Investment Bank. There are real opportunities for that sector to grow, too.

Solar and storage technologies can be quickly deployed, so committing to a Scottish solar deployment target would mean that the Scottish Government could rapidly deliver skilled high-quality jobs to rural and other parts of the country in weeks, rather than years.

Solar also has the potential to provide employment for North Sea offshore workers and for those involved in the decommissioning of Torness in my area, which would require vocational and other training support from the Government.

Solar can expand our industrial sector. Scotland has an established solar supply chain that involves a wide range of companies that work on design, manufacturing, distribution and project development, among other things. There is a real opportunity to expand the supply chain further. Solar Energy Scotland estimates that deploying 4GW would lead to a minimum of around £2.5 billion of economic activity in the areas that I have mentioned.

Supporting the sector would send out a very clear signal to Scottish companies and give them confidence to invest in their workforce and operations, thereby expanding the supply chain and helping to diversify the Scottish economy. Such support would also reduce pressure on the grid. Solar Energy Scotland recommends

“a move to a smarter, more decentralised system of power generation and use”,

which would mean

“maximising the potential of local, ‘onsite’ generation”

Scotland has major solar resource potential. Policy decisions in the next few months and years can provide confidence so that there is the necessary investment in the sector and the impetus for skills agencies, colleges and universities to prepare the skills base to move the sector forward.

I have already met Solar Energy Scotland, and I look forward to continuing working with it to maximise the opportunities for the sector and to build on our incredible renewables success story in Scotland.

18:01  

I join members in congratulating Fergus Ewing on bringing the debate to the chamber. The level of interest and enthusiasm for the topic that members across the chamber have shown is extremely positive.

The Scottish Government has been clear that the climate emergency is the biggest threat that our world faces. We must set right the terrible mistakes of previous generations and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, slash our emissions and prevent the catastrophic impacts of climate change from threatening not only human civilisation but the rest of the living world around us. Scotland is taking leading action to combat climate change, with emissions already down by more than 50 per cent by 2019, but we have much more to do if we are to make up for recent missed targets. The energy transition is a critical part of that.

Last year, Scotland generated enough renewable electricity to power all households in Scotland for almost three years. However, the scale of the challenge means that we have much more to do. The Scottish Government is taking action through our ScotWind announcement, our onshore wind policy statement and our commitment to measures such as active travel and reducing car kilometres. It is also crucial that we do not repeat other mistakes of the past and that we ensure a managed and fair transition to net zero.

The Scottish Government recognises the great importance of energy that is generated from solar in contributing to the decarbonisation of Scotland’s energy supply and helping us to reach net zero by 2045. I have no doubt that solar will play an important and growing role in our decarbonisation goals. It also has the potential to lower costs for individuals and communities.

I think that that is a very important point. I hope that there will be many people watching who are interested in joining us on the solar journey. However, does the minister’s Government offer any financial support so that people can access solar technology? If not, might such support be possible?

I will come on to that.

Around 400MW of solar PV is currently operational in Scotland. In 2020, it generated 353GWH of electricity. As of June last year, projects worth a further 352MW were in the pipeline. Solar is growing, and I hear very clearly the appetite of members across the chamber for us to support the sector to grow faster.

Solar is a versatile technology; it interacts well with other renewables. For example, it plays a key role in off-grid communities such as Fair Isle, where £1.5 million of Scottish Government funding helped to fund electricity generation based on three wind turbines, solar and battery storage, providing the island with 24-hour electricity for the first time.

We are keen to understand more about what solar can do. We are undertaking research, which will be published this year, to examine the extent to which building-level storage can help reduce household energy costs. That is not specific to solar alone, but it will look at pairing solar PV with storage.

On funding, the Scottish Government offers a number of support mechanisms to enable the deployment of solar, which is already helping consumers and communities to reduce their carbon emissions and their energy bills. The schemes also recognise the potential for the decarbonisation of not only electricity but heat. For example, the Scottish Government’s social housing net zero heat fund supports social landlords across Scotland to install air-source heat pumps alongside solar panels and battery storage.

Will the minister give way?

I ask the member to let me finish my point.

The combination of these three technologies helps to reduce carbon emissions and bills. It also smoothes out demand, reducing potential strain on the network, and makes homes more resilient to potential power outages. It combines all those benefits in the way that Mark Ruskell described, and it has great potential.

I thank the minister for giving way and I agree very much with what he said. Would he address some of the specific asks that I included in my speech, which I notified him of yesterday? In particular, I refer to the need for swift action and the desirability of adopting the measures that are in place in England to enable—typically without planning permission—rooftop solar. That would allow us to make swift progress, and I wonder whether it is in the minister’s plans.

I am aware that the planning minister has met with Solar Energy Scotland, which I am sure would have raised that issue. I am responding as the minister responsible for zero carbon buildings, but the planning minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and others are actively engaged in this agenda as well.

I will give another couple of examples of where this work is already taking place. Dumfries and Galloway Housing Partnership is installing measures that are similar to the combined technologies that I described in 100 of its off-gas homes, replacing inefficient and carbon-intensive heating. Those tenants are expected to benefit from a reduction of up to 60 per cent in their energy bills. I hope that people around the country who are facing the cost of living crisis see that as evidence that the transition can be made to work in people’s interests.

The Scottish Government’s community and renewable energy scheme provides funding and specialist advice for communities that are taking such projects forward. The example noted by Colin Smyth of the provision of £100,000 to Edinburgh Community Solar Co-operative saw solar PV—along with battery storage—installed across 24 public buildings owned by the City of Edinburgh Council. All the additional income that is generated from those solar panels is allocated to a local community benefit fund, helping to ensure lasting economic and social benefit for those communities. In all those ways, solar renewables can be used in conjunction with other technologies to maximise efficiency and benefit.

Stirling Council has been installing solar PV on to its social housing since 2012. The Scottish Government has helped that programme with additional funding under both the decarbonisation fund for social housing and funding from the area-based schemes. That has led to more than 4,200 installations to date, with 40,000 solar panels installed in the Stirling area and an average annual saving to households of hundreds of pounds per household. The council is now installing battery storage alongside the PV, giving additional savings.

Members have emphasised some UK measures, such as grid connection costs, and the cabinet secretary met Ofgem just today to make the case once again.

Scotland has huge potential for solar energy and I again thank Fergus Ewing for raising the issue in the chamber. I am very pleased by the strong appetite for faster action. The Scottish Government is working with the solar industry. We welcome the work that it has done and the proposals that it has put to us, which our officials are engaging with. Permitted development rights are under review, and I will make sure that the planning minister is clear about the strong appetite of members across the chamber for action to be taken as quickly as possible. As we committed to in the Bute house agreement, we plan to publish an updated solar vision, detailing our future objectives, as part of the energy strategy refresh, which is due later this year. We will continue to work with the industry and with members across the chamber as that vision is developed. The strength of view that has been expressed has been heard very clearly and will be at the forefront of our minds as we complete that work in the coming months.

Thank you, minister. That concludes the debate. I close this meeting of Parliament.

Meeting closed at 18:10.