UK solar strategy favours commercial rooftop at expense of solar farms

Speaking at SunSolarEnergy’s new solar assembly line in Birmingham, U.K. energy and climate change minister Greg Barker said: "We want to move the emphasis for growth away from large solar farms and instead focus on opening up the solar market for the U.K.’s estimated 250,000 hectares of south-facing commercial rooftops."

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) concedes that its own predictions for the large-scale, ground-mounted PV market have been exceeded. "Given the finite nature of this (Levy Control Framework) budget, it will be necessary for the government to continue to monitor the overall pipeline of projects against our ambitions for a diverse mix of renewable technologies and achieving value for money for consumers."

The strategy stops short of making changes to current incentives to promote investment in the mid-scale PV market, which lags behind those of other PV markets in Europe. As of December 2013, the 0-4 kW feed-in tariff (FIT) band has helped to incentivise over 1.2 MW of installed PV capacity in the U.K. By comparison, the seven FIT bands that deal with installations from 4 kW up to 5000 kW, have resulted in barely 400 MW of installed capacity.

Andrew Lycett, U.K. distribution manager for Swiss inverter producer Solarmax, comments: "The U.K. is a sleeping market for commercial rooftop, though we understand DECC is looking at changing feed-in tariff (FIT) bands to unlock that market."

At the Ecobuild show in London in March, Solarmax exhibited new products for the U.K. solar market, including a 30/32 kW inverter for commercial and industrial rooftop applications.

Removing barriers and redtape

Small-to-mid-sized businesses intending to develop their rooftop solar potential face a number of obstacles. With the Department for Communities and local government, DECC is considering introducing new permitted development rights in England that would shorten development timescales, especially for roofs with over 50 kW in capacity.

Solar installations in excess of this amount submit their applications through the ROO-FiT, a lengthy application procedure, so DECC is working with the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) and the solar PV industry on ways to simplify the process and reduce paperwork. Several solar PV companies in the U.K. are gearing up to take advantage of opportunities afforded by DECC’s new strategy.

Robert Goss, managing director of Conergy UK, says: “There is huge pent-up demand for the owners of hundreds of thousands of acres of rooftops that currently go unused, who want to do something about rising energy bills. The government’s support for them is long awaited.” Conergy’s UK business has hired 50% more staff since mid-2013.

Lightsource Renewable Energy, the U.K.’s largest PV generator – with a substantial portfolio of solar farms under its belt – acquired engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm Renewable Resources in February, which has developed the most commercial rooftop PV capacity in the U.K.

The strategy also includes the government’s aim to install 1 GW of solar PV generating capacity on the government estate through a programme led by DECC and Cabinet Office, including an initiative aimed at schools.