Solar refuses to lie down and die in the UK, says industry body

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The U.K.’s Solar Trade Association (STA) says the latest figures released by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) bear out its fears over the demise of large-scale PV in the country.

But the STA’s Leonie Greene has told pv magazine local councils and commercial customers are forging ahead with solar installations despite a lack of policy support from politicians.

“We did see a very interesting new solar farm last year from West Sussex County Council,” said the STA spokeswoman. “Local government is catching onto the reliability of solar as an investment that can help to secure sustainable incomes for frontline services. Indeed one council, Warrington, committed £59 million last year to solar developments, so it’s a serious agenda and local government is in a particularly good position to structure attractive projects.”

Councils across the U.K. have had their budgets slashed since previous prime minister David Cameron ushered in an austerity regime in 2010 that continues to this day. With mounting fears about some authorities’ ability to provide obligatory services such as care for the young and elderly – and in some cases to simply stay solvent – the potential of solar self-consumption to reduce energy bills is leading councils to consider PV, provided they can raise the upfront capital required.

Commercial solar is still alive

The STA’s Greene says although the BEIS figures paint a grim picture for all but the smallest installations – with only 268 MW of capacity added last year, according to provisional statistics – commercial and industrial (C&I) energy users offer a glimmer of hope.

“[C&I] rooftop solar continues to develop, aided by a strong corporate commitment to reducing carbon,” added Greene. “The market is obviously much smaller than we would like here. Partly this is an historic weakness; the U.K. policy framework put little emphasis on factory and office rooftops, surprisingly. This has been exacerbated by recent disadvantageous business rate treatment. Nevertheless, solar prevails and the economics of rooftop solar are attractive and will be increasingly so – although we are concerned by bizarre new network charging proposals which could penalize those who act to slash their emissions.”

The latest monthly figures for solar indicated there were no PV projects of more than 25 MW capacity or of 5-25 MW installed in December, and only 7.5 MW of new capacity was added from both market segments across the final three months of the year. Similarly, only 500 kW was added in the final quarter – 300 kW of it in December – from projects with a capacity of between 50 kW and 5 MW.

An uphill struggle

“Unfortunately these numbers are no surprise and similar to our projections for 2018,” said Greene. “The large-scale solar market has been shut out of clean power auctions for four years now, so we saw barely any development here. It has been a question of waiting for the economic stars to align, for the pipeline of projects to move and this is starting to happen, with modest growth anticipated in 2019. Solar has to compete unaided on an unlevel playing field where pretty much all other forms of energy are subsidized. It is testament to how extraordinary this technology is, and how determined the industry is, that we prevail.

“It is more than frustrating that solar is having to compete on an unlevel playing field in the U.K. – including even with fossil fuels, where the European Commission identified the U.K. as having the highest fossil subsidies in Europe. But even where governments freeze out solar, the green shoots of technology change continue to push through.”