Study: Solar customers may be better off using self-generated power

New academic research has shown that U.K. solar PV consumers are often too focused on the financial benefits of selling the electricity they generate back to the grid when they could be using more of it themselves.

The study, carried out by the University of Durham as part of the Customer-Led Network Revolution (CLNR) project, found that PV owners were highly informed about their energy usage but that many were not aware they could be saving on their energy bills by using more of the power they generate in the home.

Currently, anyone with electricity-generating technology from a renewable or low-carbon source benefits from the government’s feed-in tariff (FIT) program, which pays the PV owner for the electricity they generate and for the electricity they export to the grid.

The Customer-Led Network Revolution and other similar projects funded by the U.K.’s Low Carbon Networks (LCN) Fund are investigating ways to support the country’s transition to a low carbon economy, according to Liz Sidebotham of an electrical distribution company Northern Powergrid, which operates in the North East England and Yorkshire regions and is leading the CLNR project.

"Our research has shown that solar PV owners tend to be the most aware and informed when it comes to energy usage," Sidebotham adds. "This leads to more active ways of relating to energy, whereby individuals engage in the calculation of their own consumption and generation, as well as in monitoring and managing their use to a greater extent than in other households.

"We also found that the uptake of PV is being driven by new conventions focused on investment, with owners focused on the potential financial returns that PV can bring, based on the logic of ‘exporting’ electricity to earn a return from the FIT scheme.

Sidebotham points out, however, that PV owners tend not to recognize the onsite use of power as a way to maximize financial benefits even though the cost of electricity proves that it’s economically sensible for them to use as much as possible so they don’t have to buy electricity from suppliers.

Recent figures from U.K. trade body the Solar Trade association (STA) estimate that the U.K.’s total installed solar capacity generated from homes, buildings and solar farms is now around 4.7 GW. The contribution of solar to U.K. electricity generation peaked at a record 7.8% of daytime electricity demand this year on June 21.

With greater use of renewable energy sources and the electrification of transport and heating playing a central role in government plans to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, the CLNR project aims to help U.K. electricity network operators better understand and plan for the impact of solar PV and other low carbon loads on local electricity networks.

Traditionally, network operators have dealt with any new demands placed on the powergrid by reinforcing the network. CLNR is exploring smarter alternatives that will make the most of existing assets and defer the need for costly network reinforcement.

"Solar PV has enormous potential as one of the most popular low carbon technologies in the U.K. and this study has provided us with some really interesting insights," Sidebotham added. "For example, we have seen that by equipping PV owners with smart meters and in-home energy monitors they were able to better understand and manage their own energy use and generation.

"It gives PV owners the knowledge to help them cut their energy bills further and become even more energy self-sufficient, lessening the flow of PV-generated energy back onto the networks.

Sidebotham said this could be hugely beneficial for the UK electricity industry, allowing more PV to be installed without the need for investment in network infrastructure while helping the U.K. on its way to achieving its decarbonization targets in a more cost-effective way.

The CLNR project, the largest of its kind in the U.K., is funded by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets’ (Ofgem) Low Carbon Networks Fund and is being completed in partnership with British Gas, Durham University, Newcastle University and EA Technology.