Group buying could make up for UK loss of export payments

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The savings on household solar systems purchased through a group-buying model which encouraged 2,000 customers to opt for PV in the U.K., ensure there will be a market for domestic solar in Britain, whatever the nation’s post-FIT regime looks like.

That is the verdict of Ruud Frijstein, from Dutch group-buying specialist iChoosr, which is administering a Solar Together programme rapidly taking root in Britain.

Mr Frijstein said expansion of the scheme after a successful trial in Norfolk in the east of England in 2015 and successive rounds in London, and now Essex and again East Anglia, would pause “until we have a clearer picture of the post-FIT situation [in the U.K.]”.

But he added the first Solar Together scheme in London had resulted in an average solar price of £0.98/W peak ($1.25/W peak) for standard panels and £1.01 for PERC high-performance panels from the winning Solarcentury and Ikea bid, in contrast to the £1.714 solar price quoted by the U.K. government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in its Solar PV Cost Data spreadsheet, last updated in May.

“Somehow this group purchasing scheme has created economies above the BEIS figures,” said Mr Frijstein. “We have already compensated for the lack of an export payment. And even if there is no obligation on companies to pay for excess energy from generators, there still may be companies who want to because they value that energy.”

Spreading beyond the capital

The Solar Together scheme is promoted through local authorities to encourage households and small and medium-sized businesses to register an interest in solar. A reverse auction is held among installers with the experience and expertise to cater to large volumes of customers – estimated at 20-30 companies among the U.K.’s remaining 1,000 installers, according to Mr Frijstein – and the lowest bidder wins, with people who have registered an interest then offered the chance to commit.

A pilot scheme administered by iChoosr in Norfolk in 2015 prompted 3,800 registrations of interest, with 928 installations approved, of which Mr Frijstein says around 75% come to fruition. Some 1,100 installations were agreed this year under phase one of the scheme in four London boroughs, and a new auction will be held on Wednesday, August 22, encompassing programs in a further eight London boroughs as well as in Essex – through the county council – and in East Anglia, via Norfolk and Suffolk county councils and a return to Norwich City Council.

With installers – of whom Mr Frijstein expects “two to four” to be successful in next week’s bid given the volume of prospective customers – able to offer discounts because of the geographical proximity of installations and number of customers, the man responsible for iChoosr’s U.K. project development says group buying can reverse negative headlines about British solar.

“We are sailing against the wind,” Mr Frijstein told pv magazine. “When you look at the industry in the U.K., it’s had a rough period in the last couple of years with changes in regulation. A cut in the FIT at the end of 2015 led to a fair amount of installers who had trouble surviving. Now there’s the outlook of the FIT completely disappearing. There are companies who find it interesting that we are able to energize customers again and raise interest.

‘It’s time to be positive’

“What we see is that consumers are still very much interested in solar. But they need a good message, the media has been negative about the solar industry as a result of the disappearing FIT, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People can be less inclined to buy solar, but we’re turning around that message and offering people an interesting route to PV. The typical response from customers is that they’ve been thinking about solar for years and never dared to buy it and thought they’d missed the boat.”

With the Solar Together scheme permitting new registrations after the auction price has been determined – subject to limits on customer numbers set by the successful installers – there is the realistic prospect of even more people signing up over and above the 9,000 expected across the three geographical areas on auction day next week.

Once iChoosr has adjusted to Britain’s post-FIT landscape, there is the prospect of further Solar Together schemes across England, added Mr Frijstein, who says his company is in contact with several other local authorities.

And the success in London has helped raise the profile of a company which has driven several popular schemes in its domestic Dutch market and in Belgium.

“London is a difficult place to be because of problems with roofs, parking and scaffolding, and because London customers are very demanding,” added Mr Frijstein. “If you can do [group buying] in London, you can do it anywhere. We are currently talking in Japan, so the London market helps us worldwide.”