Ecobuild hits politicized note on opening day as solar talk shushed

The opening political debate on day one of the Ecobuild exhibition, London, was a passionately argued, well-attended affair that sought to determine each party representative’s stance on renewable energy before the forthcoming U.K. election.

However, despite the claims, counter-claims and rhetoric of the panel – which included U.K. Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey – the issue of solar PV’s place in the U.K.’s energy landscape was largely absent from the agenda.

Davey was joined on the panel by Labour’s Baroness Worthington – Shadow Secretary of Energy and Climate Change – Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, Conservative MP for energy Peter Lilley, and Prof. Paul Ekins of the UCL institute for sustainable resources, to debate the issue of greening the U.K. grid, specifically asking: is low carbon electricity a vote loser?

Couched in such terms, there was tangible trepidation among the heaving, pro-eco audience that the ministers would disappoint. Challenged on whether the current coalition really has been the “greenest government ever”, Davey was unequivocal.

“We have more than doubled renewable energy generation capacity under the current government,” he said. “And we would double it again by 2020. The Liberal Democrats would invest an extra £2 billion a year in energy efficiency and low carbon measures from 2018.”

Davey added that the U.K. leads the world in tidal and wind power, and reminded the audience of the success of the recent CfD auction for offshore wind investment. “I have commissioned more renewable energy investment than any other U.K. MP in history,” he stressed, adding that the bar has, unfortunately, been set too low for decades.

However, Davey mentioned solar PV only in passing, despite one-quarter of the exhibition floor at Ecobuild being given over to solar companies. The recent CfD auctions saw solar feeding off the scraps of the more established onshore wind energy sector, driving a mere 72 MW of additional PV capacity plans for the next fiscal year.

Heavily politicized

With a general election due in May, the attendant MPs saw the Ecobuild debate as an ideal opportunity to attack their opponents, or – in the case of the Conservative representative Peter Lilley – the very science of climate change itself, telling an incredulous audience that humans are able to survive the temperature difference between Helsinki and Singapore, so “an extra 1 degree in the atmosphere is not really going to have too much of an impact”.

In touching upon CfDs, neither Lilley nor Davey explained why certain technologies were grouped as they were, which effectively placed solar in direct competition with onshore wind as ‘established technologies’.

It was left to Labour’s Worthington to address the wider issue of solar’s place in the future energy landscape of the U.K., calling for an energy sector that is focused on decarbonization, security of supply, and affordability – “three objectives that solar and other renewable technologies can help achieve”, she said.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett spoke of how greening the grid is “absolutely essential”, adding that the U.K. has a huge technical opportunity, community opportunity and social opportunity to reinvigorate its energy supply landscape, while Prof. Paul Ekins dismissed Lilley’s climate skepticism and backed the continuation of renewable subsidies, stating: “There is likely to be a 10% and rising impact on bills until 2025, but from that date costs will fall.

“We need to bite the bullet on this, for the benefit of future generations.”

Understanding the UK market

On the show floor, many of the solar industry’s biggest names appear to have cut no corners in showcasing their latest products and services, many of which have been rolled-out specifically for the U.K. market.

Scott McDaniel, country manager for SolarWorld UK, told pv magazine that the U.K. consumer is among the world’s most discerning, intent on quality of product, performance, service and aesthetics.

“It is why we have developed our all black, Sunmodule Plus, and our glass glass, all black module, which delivers great aesthetics and performance, alongside the peace of mind that SolarWorld has traditionally offered,” said McDaniel.

Power optimizer specialist SolarEdge was showcasing its module partnerships with Jinko Solar, Phono Solar and JA Solar, which allows U.K. buyers to purchase these modules with SolarEdge optimizers already embedded – an offering that the company believes will be attractive to U.K. residential homeowners and commercial entities.

Elsewhere on the solar floor, roofing and mounting providers such as Renusol and Schletter were prominent, hoping to tap into the residential and commercial rooftop sectors that are forecast to grow in the U.K. over the course of 2015 and 2016.

pv magazine will be reporting live and direct from Ecobuild between March 3-5, so be sure to check back for more updates, news stories and interviews from the show.