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The government has recently introduced a new certification program for sustainable energy products. Called the ‘Micro-generation Certification Scheme’ (or MCS), the program is designed to protect customers by ensuring good quality in both products and installation. The scheme works by putting manufacturers and installers through an inspection process in which the applicant has to demonstrate a certain level of competency in the technology they offer, provide a documented, quality management process and show an example of a finished product or installation. In order to incentivize the industry to sign up to the certification scheme, the government has declared that customers may only apply for grants or feed-in-tariffs if their system is entirely covered by MCS which means there is little point in buying an installation without MCS accreditation.

Preventing cowboys from entering green-industry and exploiting customers trying to do their bit for the environment is essential. However, concerns have been raised regarding the real impact of the scheme on customers and regarding the credibility of the certification process itself.

Since this is solarfeedintariff.co.uk, let’s look at the certification requirements for solar energy as an example. In order to claim the UK solar feed-in-tariff arriving next April, you have to install solar panels that have been through the MCS process. At this stage however, few manufacturers have obtained MCS accreditation for their products. In many cases it is simply because they haven’t heard of the UK’s MCS program yet. In other cases, manufacturers who have been told about the scheme may not immediately decide to go for it. To get accredited, you have to pay a private certification center (that in turn has been ‘accredited’ by the MCS administrators) to inspect its product and facilities. This is a costly and time-consuming process. In many cases, someone from the accreditation center has to be flown (at the expense of the manufacturer) to a factory in Europe or Asia so that it can be ‘inspected’ often by someone with little or no experience of the photovoltaic industry. Once you have MCS, the rewards for manufacturers are not clear. In the world of solar energy the UK barely even registers. I am often met with surprise (or worse still, laughter) when I say I’m from the UK at solar conferences. The German market will be over 200 times greater than the UK market this year. There is not a single ground mounted PV power plant in the UK. This means there is no guarantee that investment in MCS will be worthwhile.

The second issue is that certification processes for solar modules already exist. The most prominent is the IEC certification process that can be administered only by a handful or institutions worldwide. This is a rigorous performance and reliability procedure that tests the energy output of a solar panel under controlled conditions, and puts it through a large number of stress tests. These include the damp-heat test (thermal cycling in a humid chamber) and the hail-test (bombarding the module with pellets of ice fired from a canon). IEC tests are designed and continually improved by a committee of international solar energy experts. Wisely, the MCS recognizes IEC accreditation and requires it as part of its inspection. This does lead to the amusing situation where a UK inspector will visit mulit-billion dollar factory that has been supplying solar panels to the rest of the world under the IEC has ‘approve’ that everything in order.

In a photovoltaic system, there are many different components besides the solar panel, however MCS applies only to the solar panel. This is hard to explain. The other expensive part of a PV system is the inverter, which converts the direct current produced by the solar panels into mains 50Hz alternating current so it can be used by most appliances in a building or sold to the grid. The inverter is therefore critical to the good functioning of a system and is known to be significantly less reliable than solar panels which are normally guaranteed for 20 years compared to just 10 for the inverter. Why then is the inverter not covered by MCS?

The MCS for installers in the UK has a clearer role. Many people are familiar with cowboy builders or decorators providing shoddy service, and MCS could be an excellent way to reduce this. Questions remain about the implications for accessibility of micro-generation however. Does MCS mean that a competent DIYer interested in building their own micro-generation system is denied access to government support because they haven’t forked out for an MCS installer?

The main concern is that MCS reduces the amount of competition in the UK, limiting the choice consumers have when it comes to products and installers. Prices of Solar PV systems in the UK are already shockingly high compared to Germany (up to twice the price) and MCS risks being a barrier to entry so that certain manufacturers can now charge even higher prices to UK customers. The MCS could be hurting those it is designed to protect, to the benefit of the manufacturers and installers already within its program.

Certainly the intentions of the MCS are good and with time it could play a key role. The MCS needs to be very careful however not to stunt the growth of the UK solar industry from its current insignificant size. The biggest barrier to that growth is cost, so any measures that may increase costs to the end customer must be rigorously justified.

4 comments

Simon Mallett

December 5, 2009

I am an early generator of solar energy with a professionally installed Solar Century system. It is grid connected and the Highest power station in Kent. I was part of the EAMA study and have and expect to continue exporting renewable electricity.

This twist to the Feed in Tariffs whereby only new systems can apply is a slap in the face to all of us who have facilitated the creation of the renewable microgeneration industry in the UK. Without us investing in this new technology, there would be no industry, no installers, nothing!

I do not understand the Governments atitude in alienating so many people. people who should have been supported as they would have been fantatsic free publicity. EVERYBODY with a system is going to be ‘hurt’ by this. There will be NOBODY with an installed system who will be out there actively promoting – we won’t be saying, get a system, we will be saying, “I’ve been utterly let down, don’t trust these people”.

Worse than this, it will be financially beneficial for me to scrap my existing system and install what will almost certainly be an identical system, just 5 years newer (with the same 25 year and more lifespan). Whoever came up with this incompetent system, well, words fail me!

Steve

December 17, 2009

Is the certification process (for the panels) being changed in January?
My installer said that the govt is change the process that the manufacturers have to go through in order to get their panels onto the “approved” list.

Sunny boy

December 21, 2009

The MCS is a racket – it is a good earner for the company authorised by the government to operate it. In theory it keeps “cowboys” out of the market (both installers and manufacturers of products) and so protects the consumer. In practice, the inspectors are far more interested in documentation, filing systems, etc. than they are in the quality of the products or of the installations.
MCS earn their money from the manufacturers/importers and installers who pay their fees. They do not fail anyone or anything, so long as they pay the fee. Some products that are not only flawed but potentially dangerous have been approved, as have installers who are not qualified or competent to do electrical installation work. Conversely, some small manufacturers & installers, who may offer better quality, more innovative products/services, have been kept out of the market by the high fees charged by MCS.
MCS inspectors sometimes seem unaware of the relevant building regulations and sketchy on how renewable energy systems work.
MCS adds to the cost for consumers but does little or nothing to protect them from poor products or installation work. It should be scrapped and renewable energy installations should be inspected by local authority building control inspectors, just like any other construction work.

A.Flatroofer

February 10, 2010

Sunny boy is spot on. This is what I say. Let the local authority inspect all installations. The whole system will be up and running sooner and run much smoother. The local inspectors know all the cowboys. Why can’t they have a list of the tradesmen to issue to all applicants. If customers receive grants and feed in tariffs, I am sure they will not object to the £50+vat payment to the L/A. Lay the law down and jail any fraudsters. I have met a lot of building inspectors over many years and though we have not always agreed, they always do their best to keep the jobs flowing. Do you think this government are trying to make all procedures difficult so that the number of claimants will be kept low.?

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