UK: Installation rush expected as subsidy cuts loom

Official data from the U.K. government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has revealed that the looming cuts to solar subsidy have triggered an installation rush that is forecast to accelerate through to the end of the year.

In the summer DECC announced that it would be cutting support for solar under the popular feed-in tariff (FIT) by 87% for residential installations. This announcement triggered a surge in FIT-backed solar installations once the news had spread – DECC data shows that 18,346 solar systems were added under the FIT in September, up 59% on the previous month and the highest figure for three years.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) has reported that its members are experiencing a significant rise in demand, prompting concerns that the rush to beat the FIT cut deadline could result in consumers accepting poorer deals or receiving shoddy workmanship as developers seek to install as many systems as they can.

The chief executive of the Renewable Energy Consumer Code, Virginia Graham, has stressed that households should not fall foul of signing up for deals with hidden catches, and must be on guard against overpriced or rushed work.

Such a precedent was set in 2011-12 when, Graham said, a "mad rush for solar when subsidies were last slashed resulted in a very high number of complaints because people got their fingers burnt."

According to the Renewable Energy Consumer Code, the industry code of conduct body, many homeowners back then paid over the odds or, in some cases, “paid a deposit to a company that was then unable to complete the installations in time.” Others received poorly installed systems as developers rushed and cut corners to beat the deadline.

As the U.K. solar industry has matured, growing into one of the largest in the world over the past 18 months, the types of financing packages available to consumers has widened. However, Graham has warned consumers to check the terms of any leasing schemes they may be interested in, stating that some deals often require customers to sign restrictive lease agreement or give developers various rights over their property.

The threat of some companies going bust in the post-cut landscape – as many as 27,000 solar jobs are at risk from January 1, 2016 when the FIT level drops – could also lead to some problems for customers, warned Leonie Greene, the STA’s head of external affairs.

"It is important that anyone wanting to invest in solar takes necessary care to ensure a quality installation," Greene said. "Solar is an exceptionally reliable investment, but it is vital that government acts quickly to secure the future of this industry, not least to ensure the necessary future care consumers expect from their local solar company."

Sudden and extreme policy changes, such as those imposed on the solar industry by DECC, will naturally spark "mighty booms followed by mighty busts", Greene added. “What you are seeing is the panic of a closing down sale. But the last technology the U.K. government should be pulling the rug on is solar power."

REA supports storage goals

Amid the warnings, the growing appetite for solar power in the U.K. is evident in the number of installations seen over the past few months. There are more than 750,000 U.K. households with a rooftop solar PV system installed, and this transition to a more decentralized energy supply can be aided by storage technology – which is something the government is, at least, giving consideration to in the new National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) launched last week.

The NIC’s three key priorities include better managing the country’s energy supply and demand, and British chancellor George Osborne has previously suggested that large-scale storage can play a pivotal role under the NIC.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA) hopes to work with the NIC to support the development of storage technologies, in conjunction with the U.K.’s academic institutions, startups and innovative companies.

"Storage is a critical component to the nation’s transition to a more decentralized energy supply," said REA senior analyst Frank Gordon. "Soon communities will be able to manage much of their electricity independently and businesses will be able to better predict and insulate themselves against unpredictable energy bills. This will enable new business models in the industry and facilitate greater renewables integration.

"We believe the Commission should support energy storage as a vital element of national infrastructure."

James Court, the head of policy and external affairs at the REA, said that U.K. energy consumers have shown a hunger to control their energy futures, and that the growing number of businesses, homeowners and communities seeking to produce and manage their own energy supply should be able to do so.

"Energy storage is a critical component of this movement," said Court. "It will allow for greater grid stability and will accelerate our path torwards decarbonization."