UK: feared solar slump confirmed despite government spin

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Context is everything. That the U.K. installed 1 GW of solar PV capacity in the first six months of 2016 could appear – in isolation – a reason to be cheerful, but as any follower of the British solar market knows, cheer has been in short supply for more than a year now.

A spokesman for the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which was hastily cobbled together from the ashes of the maligned-but-missed Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in the immediate aftermath of Brexit-Britain this summer, spoke glowingly of solar’s success in the U.K. following the publication of anemic installation figures for the second quarter.

"Solar deployment is a U.K. success story with almost 11 GW of capacity now installed," the spokesman said. "The past six months have seen another gigawatt of solar installed, meaning we now expect to exceed our projections for 2020." Largely accurate (although other sources place that figure higher), but that "gigawatt" came chiefly via the 884 MW of capacity installed in March as developers rushed to beat a government-imposed early closure of the Renewables Obligation (RO) scheme on April 1.

In the month before that, February saw just 83 MW installed as developers read clearly the writing on the wall. Since March, monthly installation rates for solar in the U.K. make sorry reading: 24 MW in April, 50 MW in May, 28 MW in June and just 16 MW in July.

By the end of July, official government figures show that the nation’s cumulative solar PV capacity stood at 10,799 MW and more than 890,000 installations. But far from pressing ahead with continued support for what is evidently a much-loved, scalable, clean and increasingly affordable source of energy, the government has taken an axe to solar’s standing legs at every opportunity.

That a 2013 projection to reach 12 GW of solar capacity by 2020 is set to be reached is a moot point. Many other nations have accelerated towards modest targets, realized early on that they would reach them easily, and duly moved that target further down the road. The U.K. government remains content to have hopped a low bar.

As such, criticism of these regressive policies has been scathing and sustained. Barry Gardiner, who is Labour’s shadow representative for International Trade, Europe, Energy and Climate Change, was quick to put the boot in on these government figures released this week. "The government’s policies are hobbling one of the bright lights of British industry," he said.

"Just when we’re starting to rely on the high-growth solar sector for more of our power than coal, the government’s incoherent attacks risk destabilizing this industry."

Already, since strict FIT cuts and other subsidy changes were introduced by the Conservative government, more than 12,000 jobs have been lost in the British solar industry.

Moving forward, much of the growth in the U.K.’s ground-mount sector is likely to come from an ‘echo’ of pre-accredited solar plant projects awarded an ROC 1.2 at or below 5 MW in size. Build out for this tranche must be completed before March 31 next year in order for the ROC to stand.

Private wire PV

Dabbling in the U.K.’s post-subsidy solar market is becoming ever more challenging, but developer Lightsource Renewable Energy is confident that it can continue to build and operate large-scale solar plants to clients that want them under its private-wire PPA, which is a merchant model of purchasing solar whereby the PV plants are "hard-wired" directly into large electricity users at long-term fixed prices.

To assist this venture, Lightsource has this week appointed global real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield and professional services business Deloitte to provide real estate and commercial advisory support respectively.

Lightsource says it can offer reliable solar power at a cost 25% below forecasted grid-supplied electricity, operating behind-the-meter.

"The U.K. energy market is evolving," said Lightsource CEO Nick Boyle. "The uncertainty in the electricity market is driving businesses towards new and innovative renewable energy solutions. As a result, the uptake of our private wire proposition has been high and our completed projects are already generating interest across the U.K.

"This is the new world of electricity supply where our customers can now choose to procure sustainable, locally generated electricity with future pricing certainty."