Tate's rooftop PV shines, U.K.'s solar outlook darkens

It was a cloudy morning in London, but Tate Modern’s star shined. London’s famous gallery of contemporary art was unveiling its new rooftop PV system, donated to the gallery by Solarcentury, the British solar firm that organized the event, which also included a line-up of presentations addressing the U.K.’s solar future.

Tate’s rooftop PV system is located on the building’s turbine hall – which before being converted into an art gallery used to house a power plant . This is the second "celebrity" installation that Solarcentury has completed in London, following the PV system installed at the Blackfriars Bridge right in the heart of the city.

Does a gifted solar rooftop make Tate Modern a green establishment, given that it also receives generous sponsorships from BP and other fossil fuel companies? That question was left hanging in the air from a Guardian newspaper journalist who asked specifically if there is a conflict of interests at play. Rather wisely, Tate had decided not to send a representative to the event.

A bleak, or simply cloudy, day for U.K. solar?

London’s sky is, unsurprisingly, cloudy today. However, Darren Johnson, chair at the London Assembly’s Environment Committee, put it more accurately. "This might be a black day for U.K. solar since the consultation on the amendment of the feed-in tariffs (FITs) ends today," Johnson said.

Johnson laid bare that London lags behind in solar rooftops compared to other parts of the country and that the city needs to develop a certain plan and strategy to boost the industry, similar to the ambitious plans laid out by New York. Johnson’s conclusions were based on a recent report published by London’s Assembly titled "How London’s homes could generate more solar energy." Other participants also agreed that London grows faster than ever and urgently needs a green infrastructure plan.

What a pity the Committee’s recommendations and findings come in a time that the U.K. government appears to have decided to phase solar power out of the country’s energy mix.

Volume matters

Following the government’s policy decision to remove the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) for new PV plants, to scrap the grandfathering mechanism for most of the PV project applications lined up in the old ROC process and to utterly change the accreditation and the size of the FIT scheme, the U.K. solar industry is expecting consolidation and radical shake-up.

Targeting specifically the proposed FITs, Paul Barwell, president at the U.K. Solar Trade Association, told the event that these are unworkable since they lead to zero percent investment return and consumers will never be able to borrow capital at such low interest rates to complete PV projects.

Also worrying are the installation caps the government has suggested, Barwell added. To reduce the cost of solar and transition the industry safely to a zero subsidy future, U.K. solar needs both higher tariffs and caps, Barwell argued.

The first will allow rooftop PV to be investable, the second will allow volume, and thus enable PV cost reduction through the supply chain.

At the moment, what we hear from many small to medium installers is that they have been forced to inform their employees that should the new FITs apply in January, they might lose their jobs.

Solarcentury’s CEO Frans van den Heuvel told the event under the proposed FITs the company will cancel £16 million of projects in the U.K. and will perhaps need to reduce slightly its workforce. Job cuts though will mainly come via other parts of the supply chain, e.g. in sub-contractors that Solarcentury collaborates with.

Future U.K. solar business perspective

Naturally, the discussion revolved around the business perspectives for U.K.’s solar sector. The future business perspectives for solar, both in the U.K. and abroad, will need to be developed around the independent power producer (IPP) model, argued Ben Warren, head of energy and environmental finance at Ernst and Young’s U.K. energy team. Businesses all over the world start to generate or purchase electricity directly on their own. This is a trend that cannot be reversed by any regulator because the technology allows it.

Asked by pv magazine, Warren said net metering is also a viable solution for the U.K. The British energy regulator should allow it. And even if net-metering does not provide the remuneration sums that FITs did in the past, it will transmit long-term certainty that customers will value, Warren added.

Five years ago, a 1 MW PV system cost £5 million. Today it costs £700,000, Warren reminded attendees – food for thought for all involved as the morning ticked by, and London’s dense canopy of grey cloud dispersed, just a little bit.