UK solar power generation increases 77% in 12 months

The amount of electricity generated by solar power in the U.K. rose by 77% in 2013, according to official figures released today by the coalition government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Renewable energy capacity reached a record 20.8 GW across the country by the end of the first quarter of the year (accounting for 5.2% of the entire energy mix), which represented a 15% increase year-on-year. Two-thirds of that increase was attributed to the addition of solar PV capacity, the majority of which was generated by the large-scale sector – a sector that the government is set to undermine when it withdraws its Renewable Obligation (RO) subsidy scheme for plants of 5 MW and over from April next year.

"These figures show how quickly the U.K. solar industry has developed to make a significant contribution to our energy needs," said Solar Trade Association (STA) chief executive Paul Barwell. "Solar is a secure, homegrown solution to Britain’s twin crises of security of supply and spiraling energy bills."

As solar costs have fallen by an average of 60% in the U.K. since 2011, helping to fuel the current solar boom, the STA has accused the DECC of "pulling the rug out" from under the country’s second-cheapest mainstream renewable energy, forcing the British public to spend more on "expensive alternatives".

Big Six investigated

Those "expensive alternatives" could have been artificially inflated in price according to energy market watchdog Ofgem, which is investigating claims that the U.K.’s ‘Big Six’ energy companies have been profiteering.

The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will spend the next 18 months investigating the business practices of British Gas, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), EDF, E.ON UK, npower and Scottish Power, to ascertain whether soaring electricity bills in the U.K. are a result of the leading energy companies squeezing undue profit out of their customers.

"Now is the right time to refer the energy market to the CMA for the benefit of customers," said Ofgem chief executive Dermot Nolan. "There is near-unanimous support for a referral and the CMA investigation offers an important opportunity to clear the air. This will help rebuild consumer trust and confidence in the energy market as well as provide the certainty investors have called for."

An Ofgem survey recently found that the majority of energy consumers in the U.K. distrust the Big Six providers, discovering consternation as to how the relationship between the supply businesses and the generation arms of the largest suppliers works, as well as reports of rising profits with no discernible improvement in service, provision or falling bills.

The investigation has been called a "watershed moment" by Richard Lloyd, executive director of the consumer group Which?, labeling the U.K. energy market as "broken" and urging that "no stone is left unturned in establishing the truth behind energy prices."

David Elmes, head of Warwick University’s Global Energy Research Network, remarked that the investigation by Ofgem has come as no surprise. "The question is, who is being investigated?," he asked. "The companies, the regulator, or the government’s policies that have driven recent reform of the energy industry?

"After many years of leaving energy to be run by the markets, the U.K. has recognized a need for a new model of collaboration between industry, the regulator and government so as to meet our needs for affordable, sustainable and secure sources of energy.

"What we need to hope for is that the CMA will step back and consider energy’s role in society and our economy, and whether the past focus on market competition is the right way to tackle today’s challenges."