Monthly archives: November 2009

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, 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.

Labour MP and advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Alan Simpson has warned of the presence of an cartel acting against the interests of renewable energy in the UK. At an event organised by Solar Century to promote the government’s proposal of a feed-in tariff system, Simpson announced that there is currently a lobby opposing the renewable campaign headed by the big utility companies keen to protect their own commercial interests at the expense of the development of green energy in the UK.

With the government’s announcement regarding the introduction of the Clean Energy Cash Back system (essentially a feed-in tariff system) in April 2010 much debate has raged regarding the tariff rate which will be required in order to optimise investment in the fledgling UK renewable energy industry.

The feed-in tariff works on the principle that small, renewable energy producers are guaranteed a fixed, premium rate for all units of energy they feed back into the national grid. The renewable energy units are purchased by the utility companies, something which they are obliged to do by the tariff legislation. In actual fact, the government has set a rate of 5p/unit with a subsidy of 36.5p for units of energy generated by small scale solar and wind installations, something which Simpson has controversially asserted will not be sufficient to spark the must needed investment in the industry.

Simpson claims that with the current rate set at 5p, the ROI for solar investors will only be around 5-7 per cent, yields which would possibly not be generous enough to turn the heads of investors who would potentially be attracted by more generous tariff rates elsewhere in the world. With a tariff rate of 10p, Simpson believes that returns could be a more healthy 10 per cent, rendering the UK as a highly competitive market in the world for attracting renewable investment in the long term.

For the UK to finally become one of the major players in the world of solar drastic changes will need to occur within the coming years to catch up with established markets such as Spain and Germany who are currently generating 2,511 MW and 1,500 MW of renewable energy annually respectively compared to the UK’s peak 6MW. Simpson certainly believes that this shortfall can only be remedied with the introduction of comprehensive tariff systems. Speaking at the Solar Century event, Simpson announced,

“Current energy policy in the UK is dominated by the vested interests of “Big Power”. The national grid is monumentally inefficient as an energy system. It was a half-decent idea for the middle of the last century, but 70%-80% of energy put into the grid disappears before you or I even switch the light on. We need not an energy, but a power revolution that takes control from the centre and literally puts power back into the hands of the people”.

Those within the industry back the words of Alan Simpson and are well aware that the future of the UK renewable energy industry is completely reliant on a strong tariff rate. Come April, it will be there to be seen if the government’s rhetoric on tackling climate change can be matched by a determination to take on the big utility companies and drive through a system which will see the UK become a leading light in the green energy revolution.

If you’ve ever carried a solar panel you’ll know that they’re pretty heavy (about 25kg for a 1.5sqm panel), and if you add on the racking that’s required it makes things even heavier. This is a bit of a problem for roofs that can’t support large weights, and for the installers who have to get the stuff up there.

As with many things in life however, technology has a solution on the way. In this case the solution comes in the form of flexible solar panels. This new type of solar panel doesn’t use glass as the supporting material; it uses transparent, flexible plastic sheets. They can be rolled up like carpets and unfurled across a low-sloping roof. This process is much quicker and easier than normal solar panel installation. The solar panels just need to be tacked down at the edges, rather than have heavy metal racking bolted into the frame of the roof. The material is also light enough so that any roof can support its weight.

This technology is spreading quickly but has yet to win dominance in the market. This is for several reasons. Firstly – only one company in the world is making flexible solar panels in large volumes. That company is UniSolar, based in Michigan, USA. UniSolar have developed their own proprietary process for depositing thin-film solar cells (see discussion “REF TO previous article”) on flexible plastic sheets.

In order to increase efficiency of the panels, their design in fact uses three solar cells stacked one on top of the other. Each solar cell responds to a different part of the sun’s spectrum so it maximizes the amount of energy converted to electricity. Despite this compmexity, these solar panels are significantly less efficient than traditional, crystalline silicon solar panels. They are made from ‘amorphous’ silicon and are currently around 6-8 percent efficient, compared to 16 percent for crystalline silicon panels. This means you have to cover a larger area of the roof.

A number of companies claim to have more efficient versions of the technology on the way. Companies such as US based Advent Solar, claim to have flexible solar panels that will soon reach over 10 percent efficiency while other companies, such as G24 Innovations in Wales claim to have lower manufacturing costs for this technology.

Given the success of UniSolar with their low efficiency and complex design, any company that can make an improvement is likely to have success with flexible solar panels. Let’s wait and see…

Environmental campaigners Greenpeace has released a ranking of the world’s leaders with regards to their respective commitments to tackling climate change. With the Copenhagen summit around the corner there is a massive media focus on the world’s leading economies to make real commitments to the environmental cause and Greenpeace are making an effort to look beyond the political spin.

Surprisingly Barack Obama is found wanting in the list with Greenpeace not impressed by the actions of the new American President. In the report, Greenpeace state that

“President Obama’s election hasn’t brought the breath of fresh air to climate talks that many had hoped for. Instead, it’s seen as a perpetuation of Bush-era efforts to disrupt and water down attempts to agree to a strong treaty as Obama tries to bring the whole world down to his own level of ambition”.

Certainly, with a rating of 8/100 Greenpeace have made clear that while the world’s most powerfulnation does little to address the issue of climate change, anything that occurs at Copenhagen will be futile.

Other powerful economies fared better with India’s Prime Minister Singh being lauded for his recent efforts to take on polluters. In the ranking table Singh was given a fairly good 53/100. The report stated,

“Singh has recently announced massive solar projects to accompany strong energy efficiency targets.”

However it also went on to criticise his policies regarding deforestation on the Indian sub-continent. The UK prime minister, Gordon Brown also benefited from the support his government ministers, and in particular the DECC has so far given to the solar industry in the UK with his recent announcement of the introduction of the Clean Energy Cash Back System, a feed-in tariff designed to incentivise investment in the solar industry. However, the report commented that Brown,

“Has failed to embrace renewable energy and an inability to quit coal has put the UK Prime Minister at odds with his own advisers on climate change. The EU’s wrangling over finance has left the UK unable to offer more than words to developing nations”.
The Copenhagen summit will highlight key deficiencies in global policy and will once again bring to th fore the debate in the UK regarding the feed-in tariff rate which will certainly need to be increased if Gordon Brown is to be taken seriously as a man with a real commitment to thwart the on set of global warming.