UK: subsidy-free solar to soar by 2020, report finds

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A Berlin-based think-do tank with experience of the German solar market has analyzed the British solar market and concluded that the industry will prosper free-from subsidies by as early as 2020.

As PV costs continue to fall, Thema1 reports that the U.K. market is perfectly positioned to benefit from the globally maturing supply chain, which will mean full system costs will closely mirror those of Germany.

The report – unveiled today at the Solar Trade Association’s Practical paths to Paris: unleashing the economic power of solar event – forecasts commercial rooftop solar to be fully competitive in the U.K. without subsidies by 2020, with the utility-scale and domestic rooftop markets reaching parity within a decade from now.

This forecast is based on the forthcoming changes to the U.K. solar market, namely a push towards the development of the commercial sector and a slowing of the ground-mount, utility-scale sector via the introduction of CfDs from next April.

"We are firmly convinced that solar will become the bedrock of the global power system going forward," said Gerard Reid, report author and partner at Alexa Capital. "That said, the road going forward is unchartered and difficult. Our message to the U.K. government is to reduce support for solar but to do so gradually."

The increasing affordability and efficacy of battery storage technologies will prove pivotal in this shift, added report co-author Gerard Wynn of GWG Energy. "As battery costs continue to fall, households will be able to deploy solar panels without government support.

"Utilities and policymakers have consistently underestimated the rate and impact of solar market growth, and the role of batteries could be another surprise."

Looking to Germany

Continued reductions in cost will see the U.K.’s solar industry follow in the footsteps of Germany’s, which despite a slowdown in 2014 remains the largest in the world in terms of capacity deployed.

The decision by the country’s largest utility E.ON to diversify away from fossil fuels and into the world of renewables is viewed as one of the greatest votes of confidence yet for the solar industry – and the Thema1 authors were full of praise for that decision, calling it an "extraordinary u-turn".

For a similar strategy to be enacted by one of the Big Six utilities in the U.K., the report suggests that the British government continues to support solar "until it is fully economic, under a regime of progressive, predictable reduction in support", while policymakers should shift price-based support to low-interest credit and offer grants for domestic battery packs for residential consumers. Utilities that fail to adapt to the changing energy landscape risk losing ground as the solar sector grows, warned the report.

There should also be measures taken at grid level to ensure the smooth integration of renewables, with greater use of smart meters and computerized grid applications that can deliver a faster, deeper and more responsive network, adds the report. "The variability of solar power will involve some grid integration costs at higher penetration levels, but these should be weighed against non-market benefits," said the report.

Finally, Thema1 expresses concern that the U.K. government’s decision to pitch solar against onshore wind in the battle for CfD funds was a misstep that can be mitigated by the solar industry adopting best practice and high standards. Suggestions include avoiding proposals for solar developments on prime agricultural land, focusing instead on transforming swathes of the U.K. brownfield sites.