Solar Independence Day: where does UK solar go from here?

July 4, 2014: the U.K.’s solar industry was still adjusting to the news that the government was to scrap the well-received Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) scheme for solar farms larger than 5 MW a couple of years early. Developers up and down the country had one single date, deadline, target in their minds: April 1, 2015 – the day that the ROC would be no more for large-scale U.K. solar.

That time of uncertainty also triggered a period of extreme focus: the U.K. ended the year with more than 2.5 GW of new PV capacity added, and began Q1 2015 with a bang, too: estimates suggest that in excess of 1.6 GW of solar PV capacity was installed in the first three months alone.

But since that April 1 deadline, the pace – save for a few large projects that were granted a ROC grace period – has seriously tailed-off. Then, in May, the Conservative party was elected to govern, casting even more uncertainty across the industry.

In appointing Amber Rudd as energy secretary, there is hope: Rudd has spoken in favor of solar farms in the past, and her viewpoint – that the future of solar in the U.K. rests on rooftops rather than fields – chimes with an evolving market that is maturing and growing with each passing day.

This year’s Solar Independence Day is, therefore, a good opportunity to take stock of what has been a busy 12 months, and for the Solar Trade Association (STA) to help plot a course for solar over the duration of the current government, while also educating the general public about the benefits of solar power.

pv magazine caught up with Sonia Dunlop, STA’s communication and public affairs manager, and organizer of Solar Independence Day, to find out more about this year’s program and the STA’s hopes for the future of the industry.

Having observed the ups and downs of the U.K. solar industry over the past 12 months, how does the STA’s Solar Independence Day differ this year compared to last?

Sonia: The big difference is that we now have a fully costed and very detailed plan that we have put forward to the new government on exactly how it can, for only a modest amount of extra funds, double the amount of solar in 2020 as compared to the previous government’s ambition and get solar as cheap as fossil fuel-generated electricity. We have set out six changes to existing policy that we think are required in order to achieve that, thereby putting forward a very practical vision for how the Government should move forward with regards the solar sector.

The STA’s six proposals are:

1. Adjust FITs to drive growth and target zero subsidy in 2020

2. Safeguard the ROC for sub-5 MW systems to 2017

3. Allow solar a fairer share of the Levy Control Framework budget

4. Adapt the CfD scheme to benefit solar and SMEs

5. Incentivize the incorporation of solar into new build houses and offices

6. Address grid constraints decisively and strategically

Are you cautiously confident that the government has learnt the lessons of 2014 and will take some of STA’s suggestions on board this year?

Sonia: I’m not sure the STA can predict what the government is going to do next. But what we can say is that we at the STA are engaging with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) at every level – from the officials all the way up to the ministers – and putting forward practical solutions that will allow all solar sub-markets to thrive and reach fossil fuel competitiveness by 2020.

How important is it for the U.K. government to safeguard the ROC for sub-5 MW solar systems to 2017, which is one of the points raised in the plan?

Sonia: This is absolutely critical for investor confidence in the large-scale market. We need assurance that the ROC for smaller solar farms under 5MW is secure, and crucially that sufficient budget will be allocated to it to allow that market to continue to grow. The government needs to be more ambitious in its targets for solar in 2020.

Is the sub-5 MW sector a suitable stop-gap until the growth of commercial and community solar?

Sonia: There is no doubt that the sub-5MW ROC is currently a lifeline for the non-domestic solar industry in the U.K., giving it the stability it needs. Large commercial rooftop solar (250kW+) deployment under the Feed-In Tariff is very low – just 1% of the whole U.K. solar market, and needs to grow further before it is can be considered a sizable sub-market of the U.K. solar industry.? The smaller commercial rooftop market is faring better but is still modest in size. That’s why we need both ground mounted deployment alongside a big effort to get the rooftop markets going.

In opening up so many solar farms and commercial rooftops to the public on Friday, what do you hope this can achieve, and what have you learnt from last year?

Sonia: Solar Independence Day is about showing off the versatility, and therefore also the potential, of solar in the U.K. It is about opening up not just solar farms – as we did last year – but also commercial rooftops, housing estates, stately homes and schools.

It is about showing businesses and communities how solar can benefit them: how it can bring down their energy bills and can be combined with farming and wildlife improvements as an integral part of the countryside. How people in fuel poverty in some of the most deprived parts of the country are benefiting from lower energy bills thanks to the panels on the roofs above their heads. It is about making MPs aware of how more and more of their constituents are going solar, and how we can invest in the U.K. economy by supporting a vibrant solar industry.

We are also looking to highlight how this is a growing industry, and how electricians and plumbers can easily upskill and add solar PV and solar thermal to their portfolio. Ultimately, it is about building support for our sunshine technology.

Rolling out across the U.K. on Friday July 3 and Saturday July 4, Solar Independence Day will invite the public to view a range of solar farms, commercial installations and historic sites fitted with solar. There will also be solar workshops and MPs will be visiting solar projects in their local constituencies.

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