Ecobuild: riding the UK's solarcoaster

Day two of the Ecobuild exhibition in London proved a bustling affair, with solar’s role in the greening of the U.K.’s housing and industrial real estate stock brought to the fore.

A well-attended commercial solar solutions workshop kicked off proceedings in the morning, where Lark Energy MD Jonathan Selwyn oversaw a quick-fire Q&A session with the audience that sought to address the chief concerns of the U.K. solar industry.

Describing the U.K. landscape as a ‘solarcoaster’ of ups, downs and unforeseen twists, Selwyn remarked that the future for commercial rooftops – facing the distinct possibility of a FIT degression later this year – appears more stable than other segments of the industry.

“The renewable obligation (RO) closed early for large-scale, and the industry feels that it could also come to an end sooner than planned (currently March 2017) for sub-5 MW installations. There could be some nasty shocks in store,” Selwyn said.

Commercial solar, backed by the FIT, offers a more secure and predictable funding landscape, and an increasing number of EPCs and developers are creating funding schemes designed to overcome the traditional hurdles that have so far stunted the sector’s growth in the U.K.

“There are so many factors to take into account when considering a commercial installation that it can prove off-putting,” Selwyn added. “From funding to pre-accreditation, planning permission and the question of internal rate of return (IRR), it can be a complex minefield for some companies.”

Lark Energy recently partnered with U.S. solar company SunEdison to expand into the commercial rooftop sector in the U.K., and told pv magazine that the two had agreed a 11.7 MW project for an unnamed U.K. retailer.

Homegrown solar

SunEdison also unveiled its new solar energy saver plan at Ecobuild, which has been developed to remove all upfront cost considerations for U.K. homeowners, and can potentially offer savings of up to 15%.

Mark Babcock, VP of SunEdison residential and small commercial Europe told pv magazine that the scheme was developed with the specific needs of the U.K. consumer in mind.

“The scheme make it possible for homeowners to save up to 15% of their electricity bill. This is an initial estimate based on a normalized consumption curve, but homeowners can actually influence that and save more by changing their consumption patterns, for example,” said Babcock.

The transient nature of the U.K. property market has been a traditional stumbling block for residential solar, but SunEdison believes that its approach strips away any concerns homeowners may have.

“Although we own the system, it can increase the EPC rating of that home, and its property value, up to 14% according to some studies. Homeowners who sell their property have three options: the new homeowner can take over the contract, which is what we think is the most attractive option for all concerned.

“The second option is the new homeowner could buy the system. This is less attractive because the new homeowner would have to requalify for new government incentives at that time. The third option is that the existing homeowner can pay SunEdison to remove the system from their roof.

“There are various options, meaning the issue of selling the property is no impediment to making this commitment.”

Babcock also suggested that such a zero-down scheme could change the demographic nature of the U.K.’s solar landscape by making such systems viable for younger people, couples and families, rather than the typical cash-rich, 50-something buyer.

“This doesn’t tend to get spoken about too often, but we think it can have a transformative effect on solar’s penetration across the U.K.”

Powering innovation

Meeting the unique challenges of the U.K. rooftop solar landscape has not only driven policy and funding innovation, but technical progress too, as evidenced by mounting specialists Renusol’s product unveilings.

Introduced at Ecobuild, Renusol demonstrated its new universal clamp and three new roofing hooks – all designed to meet the challenges of installing across U.K. rooftops, be they residential, community or industrial.

“The U.K. has very little standardization in rooftop materials,” said Renusol installer Darren Painter. “There are so many different types of tiles, and the substructure and thickness of the rafters varies from roof to roof. With speed, safety and durability key to us, this has proven an issue."

Painter estimates that with Renusol’s previous product range it would have required 30 different roof hooks to secure a typical U.K. installation; a situation that prompted a great deal of consumer interaction and research, culminating in the creation of three new hooks that can cater for all U.K. roof types.

“These new products require 37% fewer hooks on the roof, resulting in a 29% saving on the mounting system price,” Painter told pv magazine.

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.