The future's bright for UK solar PV

OPINION: The sun is shining on the UK's photovoltaic industry, but could uncertainty about Government subsidies and connection delays cast a dark cloud over the industry's future growth? 

Jamie Abbott, Trading Underwriter Engineering and Renewable Energy at RSA shares his views

Business is booming for the UK solar photovoltaic (PV) industry. In 2010, it accounted for less than a tenth of a gigawatt (GW) of the UK’s power supply. By the end of this year, it will account for 5GW – a massive 5,200% increase.

The boom started in 2010 following the introduction of Government subsidies: Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) for small-scale, typically domestic, solar projects and Renewable Obligation (RO) certificates for larger solar installations generating more than 5MW.

FITs have enabled homeowners to reduce their annual electricity bills by selling surplus electricity they generate back to the grid while protecting against electricity price fluctuations. This helps offset the initial cost of buying and installing PV systems and brings the advantage of reducing damaging carbon emissions too. 

Solar PV systems for commercial and industrial use have similar benefits to those of domestic systems – lower electricity bills, protection against future electricity price rises and a smaller carbon footprint. They also have the added bonus of generating larger amounts of electricity which helps match on-site demand with on-site generation.

There is now also widespread use of mid-scale solar systems on top of factories, supermarkets, warehouses, car parks and the like. With an estimated 250,000 hectares of south-facing roof space available for use in the UK, the number of mid-scale solar projects like these will only increase. The Government is also playing its part, using the roofs of Ministry of Defence buildings, schools and hospitals.

ROs also enabled utility companies to scale up solar PV production as demand for solar panels has grown beyond all predictions – 1.4GW of installed capacity anticipated by the end of 2014 and a healthy 1.6GW pipeline of approved projects awaiting construction.

Potential threats to continued PV growth

However, despite this impressive growth, uncertainty remains over Government subsidies received. A recent review of FITs and the RO has lead to the former being withdrawn. This is a significant deterrent to future investment.

Further challenges include the time it can take to connect larger-scale arrays to the national power grid. While construction can be completed quickly – as little as two months in some instances – the need for network modifications often results in delays.

While public opinion of solar power generation is generally positive, sensitive planning is needed to make sure the visual impact of rooftop installations is acceptable. Where greenbelt land is to be used, for large-scale ground-mounted systems for example, the importance of planning will be even greater.

Circumventing the challenges

Innovation is critical to driving down costs associated with solar power generation and improving its efficiency and covers not just the PV panels but invertors, transformers and other subsystems building as well. Take for example building-applied photovoltaics (BAPV) and building-integrated photovoltaics, where panels replace conventional building materials such as roof tiles or facades. Another example of innovation in the industry is Printable-Organic PV, where solar cells are printed directly onto glass panels.

Helping future customers make more informed choices will also help sustain growth in the industry. In February 2014, Rated Solar Installer, a rating programme for the UK solar PC industry which enables domestic and commercial customers to find high quality products and installers was launched. 

Further into the future, the developments of smart grids, grid balancing technology and smart meters in 2020 will improve network operators’ ability to integrate PV generation into the network at a lower cost.

The sun is shining

As one of the world’s leading renewable energy insurers, we are confident that PV can and will become increasingly attractive for households, communities and businesses.


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