UK: Early FIT reviews, rapid growth and brownfield development

Speaking to pv magazine, PV expert for the UK’s Renewable Energy Association (REA), Ray Noble, said the government is currently considering bringing its FIT review forward by one year, because the PV market is developing differently from its original expectations, and due to the fact the price of solar has changed “dramatically” over the last few years, while installed PV prices have come down “significantly”.

“The government started this policy [the feed-in tariff (FIT)],” explains Noble, and they “thought it would just ramp up slowly over a ten year period. But it has really taken off.”

Consequently, instead of the review taking place in April 2012, with changes coming into play in 2013, Noble believes it is more than likely the review will take place this April, meaning any adjustments would take effect in 2012. This, he says, will allow the government to make more realistic adjustments, in line with the UK’s changing PV landscape.

Unaware

He goes on to explain that the government is unaware of just how many PV project applications have been submitted by various parties across the country, in locations including Cornwall, Yorkshire, Kent, Norfolk, Nottingham and South Wales. This is because the parties submitting the plans have kept them very secret, until factors like planning permission and financing are sorted out. As such, while applications for sites in Cornwall have been fairly transparent in that those submitting them have outlined exactly what the projects will entail, i.e. solar, there are others who have not. As Noble puts it: “When you submit a plan, you have to say what it’s for. Some have put applications in whereby it has been put in as an energy generator or reuse of land, so it’s difficult to track.”

Consequently, according to Noble, while the government believes just 86 MW of PV will be installed in 2011, the REA says up to 500 MW is in the pipeline. This figure is higher than any of the analyst forecasts, with IMS Research, for example, telling pv magazine it expects around 300 to 400 MWs to be installed this year.

Noble says this figure comes from around 180 MW of rooftop PV, which is expected to be installed on housing schemes – large housing estates – while both green- and brown- fields will see approximately 150 MW of ground-mounted installations. Meanwhile, domestic projects are expected to comprise 86 MW, and commercial rooftop installations, 84 MW.

According to Noble, the finance contracts for many projects, the details of which cannot currently be disclosed, are expected to be announced within the next few weeks, meaning by March, the country can expect to see a plethora of new PV projects announced. For example, he says many of the big retailers like Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer are all planning to install big commercial rooftop PV systems, while at least three car retailers and supply chain manufacturers also have PV plans in the pipeline.

“The problem is that many of the projects are just about to be announced. What’s actually happened is that they started dealing with people around October last year. Because it was new to many of them, and because there were no contracts that had ever been set up for these sorts of things, it has taken time for it all to happen,” says Noble. “The other thing that’s happened is that for some reason in the UK, you never do work on roofs until the spring, which is about March and so virtually none of these projects were in a hurry to get started – they were all penciled in to start in March. What you’ll find over the next few weeks is that there will be a number of companies making announcements about what they’re doing, who’s won what, who they’re doing it with, etc.”

Missing the boat

“They [the government] are actually missing the boat,” continues Noble, “because they’re all over the country, these applications. There’s a number of them going in Yorkshire and Nottingham, which is where some of the big coal fields were, there are a number going in in south Wales, where there were big coal fields and industrial sites, and there’s the odd few that are going in in places like Kent and Norfolk – just about everywhere in the country, there are applications going in.”

Therefore, he says there needs to be more communication between industry and government. “We’re talking to the government (…) to try and raise their awareness of this.” He adds: “Everyone knows the price of solar has changed dramatically over the last year or so, and likewise, because we’ve suddenly gone from a cottage industry to a mass industry, the price of installations has come down significantly.”

He believes the government is just beginning to understand that the market is totally different to how it had originally perceived it. Therefore, he says the review needs to be based on evidence and on what is actually happening in the marketplace. “As these things [projects] are not yet happening, it’s pointless having the review today, because it will be just guestimates. So what they want to do is have a review through the summer, as these things are starting to develop, so they can say exactly what is going on.”

Grid parity earlier than expected

Furthermore, Noble says that while the FIT was set out for ten years, with the idea being that consumer grid parity would be reached by around 2020, the question is arising, due to factors like decreasing prices, of what happens if grid parity is reached sooner. “What they’re saying now,” he explains, “is will consumer grid parity occur earlier? If so, how do we adjust the FIT accordingly? It’s pointless having a FIT that lasts until 2020 if grid parity is reached in 2017.”

Brownfields

Another interesting development, according to Noble, is brownfields. As he explains: “Now what’s actually happening (…) is that the majority of the fields that are being developed are going onto brownfield sites.” The UK has a lot of old industrial sites, such as coal mines, which are located very near to housing estates, and these are becoming increasingly attractive, because the land is useless for agriculture, is close to housing and already has a grid connection on site. “Rather than putting the PV onto a number of houses that relate to that little area, it’s cheaper to put a PV field in to provide that same amount of electricity – a typical one of these sites, you can put a five megawatt field in, which is the equivalent of putting two kilowatts onto 2,500 houses,” he states. “That’s the sort of strategy they’re using.”

Additionally, there is a lot of opposition to wind farms in the UK. However, according to Noble, planners have latched onto the fact that PV fields on a brownfield site are ideal, because they are screened by hedges, for example, and they do not present aesthetic or noise problems. “That to them,” he says, “is far better than having a wind turbine.”

Some of the bigger organizations who have been trying to get wind farms built previously in fields are now reportedly swapping over and applying for PV in brownfields. “The other thing that’s happening,” he says, “is that some of the organizations like Ecotricity have now realized they can put PV on wind farms. It’s cheaper because the connection is already there.”

The March edition of pv magazine will publish a full overview of the UK market.