Six takeaways from London’s Energy Live Expo 2018

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The great and the good of the UK energy industry gathered at Westminster yesterday to swap ideas about the future of energy, including solar. Here are the biggest things we learned about the prospects for PV and electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK.

Why use solar when you can frack?

UK Energy Minister Claire Perry opened proceedings and, although the glitzy video presentation which ushered her arrival gave a nod to the advances made in PV, mentioned solar power only once in her remarks.

More attention was given to defending the commencement of fracking for natural gas, a decision taken based on science, said Ms Perry, rather than bowing to “those who shout loudest”. The minister found time to take swipe at Germany – for what she perceived as its hypocritical decision to ideologically abandon coal and nuclear while still using both energies; responded to a call from the floor for green bonds to help councils encourage renewable energy by pointing out there’s nothing – except, presumably, a chronic lack of central government funding – to stop them doing it already; and said it was unrealistic to suggest Britain’s gas infrastructure should be ripped out and replaced by renewables. After all, she asked, “who would pay?”

Underground resistance movement

Transport for London’s Alex Gilbert lifted the mood for any solar developers present, when he revealed the operator of the capital city’s public transport network is working on three big energy projects, including a plan to completely electrify services.

“We’re going to look at our land and which renewables we can put on it,” he said, before adding: “Spoiler alert: we’re thinking it’s going to be solar but we’re happy to hear your brilliant ideas.”

He then added, the TfL estate amounts to 6,000 acres across 10,000 pieces of land. You can be sure pv magazine is already pressing him for more details on the solar aspect of those plans.

Barbarians!

While SSE Energy’s Rachel McEwan was eager to extol the grand contribution made by wind power to greening the energy network in her native Scotland, she was considerably less enthusiastic for the prospects of PV north of Hadrian’s Wall – and yes, pv magazine is aware the English border is a little to the north.

“I’m not totally convinced,” she said of PV in Scotland. “Around the edges maybe, fine. There’s space! So there’s room to put some up! But I don’t think the output is great. I think we need to play to our strengths, and lack of cloud cover isn’t one of our strengths.”

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Right now, you could be forgiven for thinking the prospects of solar south of the wall are not much better, but we mustn’t lose hope, according to Sotiris Georgiopoulos, of UK Power Networks, which provides power across the south and east of England.

“We all know what happened in solar, with the subsidies slowing down,” he said. “We’re still engaging with the solar community and based on what they are telling us, solar is going to come back but we’re probably, maybe, another 24 months away. Some of the developers in our region have pipelines of 30 MW and above.

“The headline is: solar is going to come back, and it will come back in the 30 GW to 50 GW range.”

That would make for a long headline, but we appreciate the positivity.

‘Export payments’, cries Wolfe

When Philip Wolfe speaks, you listen. A 40-year veteran of the solar business, this PV entrepreneur/consultant/reluctant EPC provider – later heard discussing his lamentable failure to enter retirement – said it was a good thing to get UK solar off subsidies as quickly as possible, to escape a dangerous dependency on politicians.

That was a line backed earlier in the day by Ian Funnell, CEO of the UK division of battery business ABB and also by the Energy Minister – the subsidies bit anyway.

But with subsidies now becoming “yesterday’s question”, said Mr. Wolfe, the right of generators to be entitled to export payments for energy fed back into the grid should be safeguarded for a period of time, adding: “It wouldn’t be an expensive option for government or energy consumers.”

More haste, less ultra-fast charging

ABB representative Mr Funnell – though happy to discuss his company’s new product that will offer 200km of electric vehicle charge in eight minutes – said decarbonizing transport is not about sexy superfast charging points, but about rolling out standard versions at a much greater rate, his remarks coming not long after the Energy Minister had left the stage.

“For me it’s about lack of pace,” he said during a CEO panel, adding: “It’s about the rollout of infrastructure into locations, not many of which need superfast chargers, apart from the motorway network. It’s about a lack of decisions [by policymakers] to enable that [rollout], because the technology’s there.”

TfL’s Mr. Gilbert had another take on the hurdles facing EV take-up, when he said later in the day: “Power is killing EVs – EV businesses say it’s not about charging points or land, it’s about power, and everyone with power has realized that and is charging them an absolute fortune, including local authorities.”

We can only hope such policy criticism will be filtered back to Ms. Perry.