State of Solar in the UK

State of Solar in the UK »

As the Government has confirmed a target of an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 (from 1990 levels), it is an important time to consider equipping and refurbishing buildings with energy efficient and renewable technologies. Chris Bratherton, Group Sales Manager at Ecolution, looks at the current state of the solar PV industry in the UK and how it can continue its growth going forward, highlighting the need for credible and consistent signals from policy makers.

The UK solar PV market has seen an unprecedented period of growth in comparison to the rest of Europe. In the last year alone, we have seen over 2 gigawatts added to the market, bringing the UK’s total solar PV capacity to 5 gigawatts. To give you an idea of how the market is performing, at the end of 2014 Q2 there were a total of 571,960 installations, an increase of 5.3 per cent on 2014 Q1. Most of this capacity was from domestic installations (one-third of total capacity) and large scale ground-mounted arrays (20 per cent). 

A growing number of organisations are now aware of the many benefits of turning to solar PV for their electricity. From lowering carbon dioxide emissions to lower bills, organisations can also generate an income from their solar PV installation from Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs) over a period of 20 years. Investing in commercial rooftop solar PV is on the up; many companies such as Sainsbury’s, IKEA and Kingfisher have all invested heavily and installed solar PV systems on the roofs on their buildings, and many others are now recognising solar PV as an additional asset when valuing properties. Organisations with solar PV installations have also reported an increase in awareness from employees in energy usage, its costs and they are far more likely to switch lights off and conserve power.

Furthermore, the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) reports that from 2018 it will be illegal to rent out commercial property that performs below an E Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating. With all large organisations now required to undertake energy audits to cover both their buildings and wider energy use under the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS), one way organisations can drastically improve their energy performance is by deploying rooftop solar PV systems. According to the UK-GBC, there are 1.8 million non-domestic properties in the UK, with the UK Solar PV Strategy Part 2 reporting that a quarter of a million hectares of unused commercial roof space is south facing, making it prime for solar arrays. 

So what is currently stopping us?

The decline in the cost of solar energy, combined with a greater understanding of its financial benefits have made rooftop solar more appealing. However, the Government has not grasped that the UK could become a very strong competitor or even a world leader in manufacturing, creating and distribution of energy. There is a great potential to nurture renewable energy and create many jobs in manufacturing, as at the moment most products are manufactured in Germany and China. 

Unfortunately, the Government creates too much legislation and needs to streamline its initiatives. Recently the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced a change in the Renewables Obligation (RO) that will take away support for solar farms with a capacity greater than 5 megawatts. The news is a big blow to mid to large-scale solar PV, considering two-thirds of this year’s 2 gigawatt capacity was from farms exceeding 5 megawatts in size and capacity accredited under the RO, representing 34 per cent of total solar deployment.   

Another stumbling block in the UK solar industry are Legal complications with regards to ownership of solar PV arrays. At present, a business cannot dismantle and take its solar PV array if it moves to new premises. The main reason for this is that FiTs do not allow installations to be transferred between buildings at this moment in time, however consultation on this subject is underway. As many of the UK’s commercial properties are leased rather than owner-occupied, a change in FiTs to accommodate commercial tenants is needed to allow them to benefit fully from investing in solar PV to lower their electricity bills, earn money and reduce their carbon emissions.  Many business owners have shorter leases on their properties than the 20 years typically needed to make investment in solar worthwhile. If they decide to move, they need a guarantee they would not lose the original FiT rate. 

With unstable energy security it is vital to stress the importance and ease of renewable energy to the public more, and it has to be done with more urgency. End users need to understand and accept solar PVs as a power source. Perhaps if the Government focused on one simple reward scheme for renewable energy, we would see it becoming the default energy much sooner.


However…

Given that 18 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions are from non-domestic buildings, the public sector, developers, commercial property owners as well as planning authorities should be encouraged to invest in zero carbon alternatives; coupled with high energy prices, renewable energy technology such as solar photovoltaics (PV) with its low electricity costs and zero carbon emissions could transform the electricity market in the UK. As reported by the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar could be the world’s largest source of electricity by 2050, ahead of fossil fuels, wind, hydro and nuclear. With the cost decrease of PV modules and systems, they could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050 while solar thermal electricity (STE) from concentrating solar power (CSP) plants could provide an additional 11%. Combined, these solar technologies could prevent the emission of more than 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050, providing that a key set of policy actions and milestones highlighted in the reports  are achieved by the same date. 

DECC is to consult on plans to allow rooftop solar installations to be transferred between buildings without losing Feed-in Tariff (FiT) accreditation. Other plans by the DECC to boost community ownership of solar projects are also a positive step for the industry, provided they are flexible and voluntary as they would require commercial developers to open up schemes to local ownership. Organisations could invest in solar PV as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities in the localities in which they are based. Community ownership has long been an important segment to the solar industry as it not only empowers local communities, it also educates and informs users on the viability of solar PV as an electricity source which overall, is the main barrier to take-up. 

DECC is also looking to relax planning permissions for commercial and industrial rooftop solar systems over 50kWp, in favour of tapping into the large buildings’ potential. This may see government offices, factories, supermarkets and car parks evolve into ‘solar hubs’, generating a large proportion of their own power.


A case in point

Although a grid connection is always required for solar PV system, organisations save money when the peak power output of the PV system meets the business' maximum power demand as there is no requirement to buy power in from the grid, representing significant energy savings and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. In order to boost the uptake of solar PV from the public sector, housing associations and property developers, the rooftop market needs changes to its funding levels to support the move to increase the capacity threshold that triggers a full planning application. 

Rooftop solar PV capacity from systems above 250 kilowatts (kW) represents only 3 per cent of the market today. Organisations with a large energy expenditure and roof space can benefit significantly by investing in rooftop arrays. An example of this is an installation Ecolution carried out for the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust (HEFT) on Solihull Hospital and Heartlands Hospital, Birmingham. Here, the Trust will benefit from over £2 million in energy savings and Feed-in Tariff payments within the next 20 years. Before the installation, HEFT spent over £1 million a year on energy and after installing a 250KWp solar PV system at each hospital, they now save 10 per cent on their expenditure. If you take into account rising electricity prices in the future, HEFT is set to benefit further than what was initially estimated. Organisations such as HEFT also benefit from Ecolution’s remote monitoring portal that allows both parties to see the generation data. Overall, Ecolution installations have over performed by 7 per cent from pre-installed estimates.
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