Renowned environmentalist challenges UK's commercial solar sector

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Writing in The Guardian, social entrepreneur and environmental campaigner Jeremy Leggett has called on the U.K. government to step up its support of the country’s underdeveloped commercial rooftop solar sector, criticizing those in charge for doing too little to augment an industry that possesses enormous potential.

Of the 4.6 GW of solar PV capacity currently installed in the U.K., approximately half of that figure can be found in the rooftop sector. The problem, however, is that the majority of rooftop solar PV capacity in the U.K. exists on residential buildings. Of the 1.8 million commercial properties in the U.K., barely 400 have a commercial-scale (100 kWp and upwards) solar array installed. Compared to continental Europe, where one-third of solar PV capacity is to be found on commercial rooftops, the U.K. has neglected this sector for far too long, Leggett argues.

Despite boasting perhaps the most dynamic solar PV market in Europe in 2014, the U.K. government has introduced subsidy cuts that threaten to puncture the sector’s growth. Despite consistently stating that its new policies are intended to drive the commercial rooftop market, Leggett has his doubts.

"The FIT rate the government proposes fails to attract companies other than ardent pioneers," Leggett wrote. "It needs to be higher for a few short years until solar costs fall to the point that no subsidies are needed at all." Citing statistics from the Solar Trade Association (STA), Leggett writes that that date is likely to be 2020.

The campaigner suggests the government adopts a new approach to planning and executing solar projects that will encourage retailers, factories and businesses with vast warehouses to invest in rooftop PV projects. Current obstacles essentially boil down to the issue of cost and return on the initial investment.

With a quarter of a million hectares of south-facing commercial rooftop space currently standing idle, the potential is there, argues Leggett.

Former energy and climate change minister Greg Barker, who was removed from office during last week’s cabinet reshuffle, had spoken previously of this untapped potential, saying in April: "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."

However, the seven FIT bands that cover the 4 kw to 5,000 kW sector – which are the ideal sizes for most commercial rooftop installations – is not sufficiently generous enough to propel the industry to the growth that the government says it wants. Indeed, just 400 MW of solar PV in this range has so far been installed across the U.K, compared to 1.2 GW for residential-scale solar and more than 3 GW in utility scale (>5 MW) solar.