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Meet the workers that maintain the UK’s solar power

Ambitious plans to grow the UK’s solar capacity means more jobs in the sector.

By Samir Jeraj

The solar panel installation industry is estimated to be worth around £1.4bn to the UK this year. There are almost 500 solar farms in the UK, along with around a million homes with solar panels, together generating an estimated 14.6 gigawatts a year. The British energy security strategy, published in April last year, plans to increase that to 70GW by 2035, following on from the 23GW-43GW that the Climate Change Committee estimated would be generated by 2030 in its 2020 carbon budget. However, this May the Environment Audit Committee warned of serious delays in the roll out of new solar energy with waits of up to 15 years for new connections to the grid.

Kenny Lewis had been working as a general electrician in Preston when the opportunity to start working in solar power arose. He started off servicing ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV) projects, but in the years since, as the renewables industry has grown, so has its need for installation and management staff. Today, Lewis is head of operations at Low Carbon, an investment and asset management company which installs and operates large-scale renewable energy projects across the UK.

“I spend a lot of time with our performance and performance analysts team, looking at how we can improve the performance of our [Low Carbon’s] portfolio,” Lewis explains. He then dispatches teams to look at faults and plans preventative maintenance, with the aim of getting “as much energy back on to the grid as we possibly can.”

The typical development of a solar farm starts with land assessment – working with landowners to see if the site is suitable for the project. Once this has been established, Low Carbon asks for connection to the grid on behalf of the landowner. An option-to-lease agreement is signed and Low Carbon applies for planning permission. When that’s been granted, construction will start. Once the site is operational, it will be handed over to the asset management team. In total, Low Carbon and its 150 employees manage around 1GW of renewable energy supply in solar, wind and battery storage, enough to power 390,000 homes, across 100 sites in the UK.

The puzzle of fixing a new fault is both the best and most challenging part of Lewis’s job. During the Covid-19 pandemic, that became much harder, as the company could not rely on the support it had previously from manufacturers to help identify the problems in their components. Parts became more difficult to source. 

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In order to meet Low Carbon’s goal of generating 20GW of renewable capacity by 2030, solar equipment also needs to be constantly renewed and upgraded. “I strive daily to secure the health of our planet for future generations,” Lewis says, “and we believe this can only be achieved and realised through urgent creation of clean, renewable energy at scale.”

[See also: How Britain’s biggest natural battery can help deliver net zero]

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Chloe Finot has been working in renewables for 18 years – wind and solar – in operations or asset management. She is also at Low Carbon. There is “no normal day” in her line of work, but the morning usually starts with checking in with asset managers for updates about operations, clients and the new projects making their way through.

“We’re there to manage all the contracts as well as the operations and maintenance,” she says. That includes complying with environmental regulation and insurance, liaising with local councils, and providing regular reports to clients.

“I feel quite privileged to have spent so long working in renewable energy, which obviously, has a huge role in combating climate change,” Finot adds. Hitting the target of net zero by 2030 is a major motivator for her. “I was lucky enough to start working in renewable energy in 2004, which was quite early on in the industry, and passing that experience on to the next generation to keep up the challenge and help Low Carbon reach its objectives is important to me,” Finot says.

[See also: The Tories’ war on solar power is an act of self-destruction]