Ecobuild: five things we learned from the London show

The lowering of the barriers on the opening day of the Ecobuild Exhibition in London ushered in a rush of expectant attendees, who flooded the booths and stands of the soon-to-be-bustling concourse within minutes.

Such a scene, replicated the world over whenever solar is in town, took on added symbolism in the U.K., where many thousands of British businesses and independent consumers have waited a long time for the barriers to greater solar adoption to be lowered.

Despite last year’s bumper solar crop augmenting the U.K.’s multi-MW scale ground mount portfolio, solar PV has long been a domestic affair in Britain.

Around 3.35 GW of the country’s 5.3 GW installed PV is deployed across the residential sector, and with impending subsidy changes set to suppress large-scale solar further next month, Ecobuild offered the perfect opportunity to gauge the direction, pace and volume of PV’s alternative U.K. avenues – namely commercial rooftops and greater innovation in the residential sector, particularly in terms of financing.

Technical innovation was also a noticeable trend, with many leading solar providers showcasing their solutions to U.K.-specific problems, while the consumer-focused nature of the exhibition meant that much of the discussions on the concourse dealt with identifying technical solutions to specific customer requirements.

Condensing such a vibrant show into five bite-size themes is a hard task, but these were pv magazine‘s five main takeways from the exhibition…

1. U.K. is a funding test bed

The creatively liberalized financial industries of the U.K. could prove handy bedfellows for those leading global solar companies keen on rolling out new financial packages to a credit-savvy market.

SunEdison launched its new energy saver plan at Ecobuild – a zero-cost funding model aimed at U.K. homeowners eager to enjoy the benefits of solar energy without the maintenance risk and upfront costs.

"SunEdison will install, maintain and operate the system, removing both the upfront investment and system risk to the client, and locking in pricing for 20 years," said Mark Babcock, VP for residential and commercial Europe. "We sell customers the power that is produced by that system on a PPA basis, while also bumping up the EPC rating on the home."

Reza Shaybani, head of the British Photovoltaic Association (BPVA) spoke more widely at the show of how the U.K. is now being offered real choice and innovation when it comes to solar financing, which in turn is prompting other solar markets to look to the U.K. for guidance and inspiration. With many leading U.S. solar companies eager to explore new markets in which to roll-out their own financing schemes, the U.K. appears to be an obvious choice – a country with a shared language, similar legal framework and equally credit-hungry populace.

2. Making a pitch for commercial rooftops

Most of the U.K.’s largest EPCs in attendance at Ecobuild emphasized their commercial portfolio, including both Lark Energy and Lightsource. Jonathan Selwyn, MD of Lark Energy, presented a commercial solar solutions workshop that was among the most well-attended seminars of the entire show.

Selwyn stressed that the arcane world of commercial installations has proved a deterrent for some businesses in the past, and called on the industry and government to do more to make the process smoother.

"There are a number of issues that concern the average business considering a solar installation," he said. "Questions over determining what the landowner or property owner needs, and ownership and tenancy issues are a big problem in the U.K. There there are planning permission concerns, the pre-accreditation process, the question of rooftop suitability, funding options, and the all-important internal rate of return (IRR) and the degression of the feed-in tariff (FIT)."

Although tangled in red tape, there were signs at the show that the commercial sector in the U.K. is beginning to mature. U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer announced the finalization of a 6.1 MW installation atop its distribution center in the East Midlands, a project that was completed with the assistance of ET Solar.

"The Marks & Spencer installation, which was connected a few weeks ago, is the largest commercial array in the U.K. and we anticipate that there will be many more rooftop projects of this scale in the market as it moves from ground-mount to commercial," Patrick Guo, VP operation and sales told pv magazine. "We anticipate a sharp growth in this sector in the U.K. in the coming years."

3. Greater regulatory stability

Although the opening political debate at the show was notable for largely shunning all talk of solar’s potential, secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey did call for bolder solar PV targets as part of the U.K.’s Green Deal.

Davey’s keynote speech opened the show, in which he pledged to include solar in the energy efficiency program that he hopes will shape government energy policy in the coming years. The focus of the strategy is a greener grid, less reliance on fossil fuels and an end to fuel poverty – something that solar can fight on all fronts.

"The market alone will struggle to achieve our fuel poverty targets, so regulation is necessary to boost the sector," Davey said. "Such is the need for new regulations a segmented regulatory approach is needed to address the various sectors."

Speaking to pv magazine at the show, the Solar Trade Association’s (STA) David Pickup expressed his concern at the potential for further regulatory instability – something that could harm the U.K. growing solar industry.

"We really want the commercial rooftop market to take off," Pickup stressed. "Our worry is that under the current tariff system there really is not much room for growth before you encounter serious regressions."

However, FIT degressions triggered because installation volumes have been met are largely positive for the industry, argued BPVA’s Shaybani, adding that it should serve as a prompt to get moving right away.

For Pickup and the STA, it is the rate of degression that is cause for consternation.“It [the FIT] is assessed per quarter,” Pickup told pv magazine. “After 32.5 MW then the tariff begins to decrease and it is something like at 130 MW when the tariff drops by 28%. That is a significant drop in tariff in a short space of time.”

4. Bring back BIPV

As the show’s name suggests, Ecobuild proved a great showcase for greener building materials and energy solutions. But the bridge between building and solar – building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) – was hardly ventured across at the show.

BIPV-specific solutions were overshadowed by more traditional retrofit PV products, save for a few pioneering companies. Solitek and Glassbel – two Lithuanian firms – presented their Smartflex solution at the show: a solar façade designed for architects keen on integrating solar PV into their new designs.

Smartflex is being rolled out to market this spring, and Rimvydas Karoblis of Solitek spoke of the technology’s appeal to cities such as London, which has been something of a solar laggard due to perceived cost, space and design constraints.

Alan South, Solarcentury’s chief innovation officer, also issued a stark rallying cry at a residential solar talk on the show’s final day, calling on industry to bring back BIPV.

"Developers appear to have clean forgotten about it," he said. "The trend seems to be to build a house and then retrofit a solar solution, even though the industry used to do BIPV very well a few years ago. Today, housebuilders are not maximizing roof space, often stating that it’s a pain to do so, preferring instead to earn a few green ticks with the installation of a derisory amount of ill-placed panels."

5. An Englishman’s home is still his castle

Anecdotally at least, the queries and questions fielded at the pv magazine booth by our team would seem to suggest that an Englishman’s home really is his castle. Questions of quality, reliability, cost and aesthetics abounded, with most consumers happy to pay good money for products that would augment their home or business and not become a costly burden.

This demand for quality was singled out by SolarWorld as one of its key approaches to the U.K. market. SolarWorld UK brand development and country manager Scott McDaniel stressed to pv magazine that the typical British customer is a discerning beast.

"Ecobuild is an interesting event for us. We’re continuing to show U.K. customers that quality is affordable because their investment is more secure the higher quality they install," McDaniel said. "The U.K. has been a successful market for us – we have 22.7% share in the sub 50 kW category, and we think that’s because the British consumer understands that price is not everything."

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