Bright new dawn for UK solar industry


Despite the U.K. government's controversial backing of the country's fledgling and uncertain fracking potential, it is Britain's solar power industry that is piquing the public's interest and support.

New figures released last week by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) reveal that half a million buildings in the U.K. now have solar panels fitted. As of January 5th, some 499,687 solar schemes had been installed across the country, driven by a feed-in tariff (FIT) specifically designed for solar arrays with a capacity of less than 50 kW.

The DECC estimate that as many as 1,900 new solar installations are fitted each week on average throughout the U.K., with public support for solar also evident in the success of Solarmass – a British company that recently managed to raise €144,000 in just ten days via crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube.

Indeed, such is the growing appetite for solar in the U.K. that Lightsource Renewable Energy – the country’s leading generator of solar power – has embarked on a ‘Solar Roadshow’ designed to raise awareness of solar power and to educate many of the country’s rural farmers, businesses and residents of the power of the sun.

Climate change minister for the coalition government, Greg Barker, is confident that the U.K.’s bottom-up approach to solar power will help the country hit the 4 GW installed capacity milestone in the coming months, calling current growth a "staggering achievement" in a speech at Parliament last week that will have been music to the ears of Britain’s burgeoning solar PV industry.

The public's PV push

Looking ahead, the U.K.'s solar industry has set itself the target of installing one million solar arrays on homes by 2015. At the beginning of 2014, with that figure currently standing at half a million, such an ambitious final target may appear tantalizingly out of reach. But industry experts are nonetheless bullish, suggesting that the U.K.’s solar industry is enjoying a quiet revolution. The 2015 target, according to the Solar Trade Association’s Leonie Greene, looks "very achievable."

As reported in the Guardian, Greene revealed that public opinion polls show overwhelming support for solar power in the U.K., with an increasing number of householders more than happy to "put their hands in their pockets" to support the sector.

"Politicians may be fighting about energy and climate change in Westminster, but the public are just getting on with it," Greene said, adding that critics' attempts to attack the U.K.'s FIT scheme – decrying it as an expensive drain on non-solar customers’ energy bills – were wildly misplaced.

"Everyone who invests in solar is helping to bring down costs for everyone else in future. Thanks to public investment, subsidies have dropped 65% in three years, and costs continue to fall. If we carry on investing, solar will soon be able to compete with ‘Big Six’ energy bills without subsidy. The FIT cost around seven pounds (€10) on household bills last year, so for all the hysteria about renewables costs, this is proving to be a very affordable energy revolution indeed."

Figures from the DECC show that FIT-driven solar installations (those with a capacity smaller than 50 kW) currently provide more than 1.8 GW of PV capacity to the U.K. grid. Comparatively, solar analysts NPD Solarbuzz reported this week that the U.K. added 1.45 GW of large-scale utility solar power in 2013, setting the country on course to achieve a cumulative capacity of 4 GW by the end of March.

Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Guy Shrubsole told pv magazine that this was a potentially "exciting milestone for U.K. solar power," adding: "With costs falling fast, it's little wonder that so many people have invested in solar panels for their homes.

"But it is a drop in the ocean compared to Germany, where thousands of larger solar installations already exist on apartments, hospitals and schools. The government must make it easier to set up such projects here. Enabling whole communities to generate their own clean power will help tackle climate change and protect bill payers from price hikes."

Happy to splash the cash

Echoing Greene’s claims that the British public were happy to put their hands in their pockets to support solar in the U.K., British company Solarmass has revealed how a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube for the development of its new concept in solar tiles raised more than €144,000 in just ten days. This pitch made Solarmass one of the most successful fundraisers on the Crowdcube platform, which is a testament to the public’s support for solar in the U.K.

"We were very impressed and a little surprised that our pitch reached its funding target in less than 10 days and that it overfunded by 20%," said Solarmass co-founder, Paul Cropper. "It shows that the renewable energy sector is strong and that a simple idea, like a low cost, lightweight solar panel can make people sit up and take notice. Our plan now is to take the tile into production and roll it out across the world, where interest has been extremely positive."

Solarmass' Ergosun solar tile is the same weight as a thin film PV module but boasts 16% efficiency. The 96 investors who crowdfunded the initiative will each own a 11.96% equity in the product.

On the road again

Hoping to tap into the U.K.'s increasingly dynamic solar power industry is solar energy generation company Lightsource Renewable Energy. The company will this month embark on a week-long solar roadshow, aiming to increase awareness and understanding of solar technology across many of the more rural parts of the country, inviting farmers and businesses to come and visit their free solar workshops.

"Solar power is one of the U.K.'s fastest-growing industries," said Lightsource Renewable Energy CEO Nick Boyle. "Our goal is to have as many people involved in this positive, low carbon sector as possible. Whether it's benefiting from land rent, fixed price electricity or working to build the farms, there are opportunities to be part of this exciting change in the U.K.'s economy.

"We are absolutely focused on championing the rural economy and ensuring our schemes both promote the local supply chain and benefit local communities. The Solar Roadshow is designed to make sure this happens."

Lightsource already owns and operates 80 solar farms in the U.K., delivering clean solar electricity to an estimated 100,000 British homes. It is looking to double its PV capacity by the end of 2014, and has also embarked on a recruitment drive to add an extra 100 jobs throughout the year

These expansion plans follow the successful acquisition of a 5 MW solar farm at the end of 2013 from China Sunergy. The farm is located in Cornwall, southwest England, and generates solar energy for 1,500 local households. Commenting on the deal, Boyle said: "We believe this project, like our many others, will boost the rural economy in this area as well as allow further biodiversity."

ROC deadlines fuelling utility-scale growth

Lightsource Renewable Energy's commitment to ground-mounted solar installations is matched by a number of companies operating right across the U.K., with NPD Solarbuzz estimating that the country’s large-scale solar PV pipeline currently reaches 5 GW, and is expected to exceed 6 GW before the year is out.

A looming Renewables Obligation Certification (ROC) deadline has meant that the U.K.'s first quarter in 2014 is likely to see impressive growth in large scale ground-mount installations as companies push to connect their projects before the end of March. Indeed, for the third quarter of 2013, DECC figures show that PV capacity commissioned and accredited under the ROC stood at 228 MW, which was an 8% increase on Q2. Expect even steeper increases for Q4 and Q1 2014 as PV installers rush to complete on time.

After March 31st, the ROC rate – which currently stands at 1.6 for the fiscal year – will fall to 1.4 ROC/MWh for 2014/15, reducing by an additional 0.1MWh each year until April 2017, at which time the contracts for difference (CfD) scheme will take over. However, for rooftop installations that exceed 50 kW, the ROC will fall from the current level of 1.7 ROC to 1.6 after March 31st, falling incrementally by 0.1 MWh each year.

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