Monthly archives: December 2009, the group of solar energy specialists dedicated to green issues and leading exponents of solar energy has announced that it will be offering a solar installation quotation service via its website.

To request a quote CLICK HERE

The service will help both businesses and homeowners navigate the often complex world of green investments by offering advice as to the best solar packages available.

With a broad range of experience in the solar photovoltaic sector, is aware that many investors in solar panels are put off by the all too confusing array of products and technology available in the market. will seek to eradicate any confusion and clarify doubts by offering the right product to customers depending on their needs.

Ian Spencer, Managing Director of stated that,

“Ever since the website was launched, we have had enquiries requesting quotes for Solar Installation, especially with the Feed In Tariff (FIT) due to be launched in April. WE are now delighted we can offer this services, using one of the leading Solar Installation firms in the UK”

With great opportunities available to reduce energy costs and of course, help slow the process of global warming will be rolling out a service which will help both households and businesses save money, also taking advantage of the UK government’s Clean Energy Cash Back System, designed to incentivise investments in green energy through cash rewards.

With a vast array of products on the market, often from far away manufacturing bases in the far east, it can often be difficult for first time solar panel purchasers to discern the good companies from the… not so good and to calculate whether attractive looking offers are actually as great value as they first appear.

With a sharp eye on the market and with a passion for promoting solar installation in the UK, is keen to make the whole process of solar panel purchase and installation as smooth as possible, offering peace of mind to customers and promoting customer friendly, ethical companies.

Ian Spencer added,

“We expect the demand for Solar Installation quotes to rapidly rise the nearer we get to April and the dramatically increase on the Feed In Tariff is more widely recognised and known about. Therefore, we are pleased to be able to offer this service now for all of our site visitors”

To request a quote CLICK HERE

Solar panels fall into two main technological categories. The incubant, established tyoe are called crystalline silicon solar panels and the exciting but unproven type are known as ‘thin-film’ solar panels. To understand the advantages and disadvantage of each technology I’ll briefly explain how each type of solar panel is made. Crystalline silicon solar panels are made from 50 or so ‘solar cells’ connected together and encased in glass. Each solar cell is in fact a thin slice of large crystal of pure silicon (called an ingot). These large crystals are grown from a seed crystal surrounded by molten silicon at very high temperatures. The silicon used must first be extracted from silicon dioxide (also known as sand) and then purified to a very high level. Once the crystal is formed it can be sliced into wafers. The wafers are then specially treated to make a junction between a positive and negative type semiconductor, and then other layers such as the conductive contacts are added to make a working solar cell. This process has many steps and consumes a lot of energy. However, many companies have spent a lot of time refining the process to make it as efficient as possible so almost all parts of the process are now automated.

Thin film solar panels are made using a radically different process. The underlying physics is similar in that they still use a junction between a positive and negative doped semiconductor, however thin film solar panels have the potential to be made in much fewer steps than crystalline silicon. The idea is to take glass (or sometimes foil or plastic) and coat it directly with a series of layers, including the active semiconductor layers to produce a working solar cell. The glass is then encapsulated with a protective plastic and a second sheet of glass as protection. This process saves having to make lots of small cells and connect them together. The other advantage is that the layers are very thin, hence thin film solar cells. The active layers of the cell are only a few nanometers (billionths of a meter) compared to 0.2mm for each silicon wafer.

The important point of all this is that the manufacturing cost of thin film solar cells has the potential to be significantly lower than crystalline silicon. Unfortunately, there are some catches. Firstly, they are not as efficient as crystalline silicon. Crystalline silicon reaches 16 – 18% efficiency in modern solar panels, whereas the most efficient thin film solar panels on the market today  are under 11%. The next drawback is reliability. Thin film solar panels have had less time to prove themselves and have been known to suffer from degradation meaning that their performance gets significantly worse over time.

Despite these drawbacks, several companies have managed to become very successful in manufacturing thin film solar cells. The most notable is called First Solar who are now one of the top two largest solar panels manufacturers in the world and have a significant advantage over rivals due to their low manufacturing costs. First solar make thin film solar cells made from cadmium telluride, one of a number of semiconductor materials that can be used for thin films. First Solar’s panels are less efficient but are very popular for large scale solar installations because of their low cost.

Before the financial crisis, when silicon was in short supply and very expensive, all thin film solar panels were a good idea. First Solar could not produce enough and billions were invested in a large number of thin film solar companies aiming to follow in their footsteps. Now that the silicon shortage is over and the price of crystalline silicon solar panels has fallen, the environment for thin film solar cells is more challenging. First Solar will remain a strong player as they have managed to get to high volume and have a reliable production process. Many of the 200+ start-ups hoping to replicate their success will struggle however. For thin film solar cells there are a wide range of different manufacturing processes and materials that can be used, and there is still a lot of research being done to improve our understanding of the underlying physics. This means that there is a lot of opportunity to invent a ‘unique’ technology and start a company but only the best thin film solar companies will make it however. They have to show not only that their technology is efficient and reliable, but also demonstrate that large scale production is feasible and low-cost. Many ideas that look good on paper or in the lab turn out to be impractical when it comes to volume manufacturing.

At present, it seems like crystalline silicon will retain a strong market share for the foreseeable future (it current represents 80-90% of the market) but I believe that eventually certain thin film technologies will begin to displace crystalline silicon. There is a lot of potential for efficiency improvement in thin film, as well as lower manufacturing cost. Some technologies, particularly that usce solution processing are really very exciting.

What does this mean for the UK solar industry? Very little actually. I would expect over 90% of the UK market will be crystalline silicon for a long time. The reason is that the UK market will be dominated by smaller rooftop applications (partly due to the structure of the tariff as discussed last week). In such space-constrained applications you want to use the most efficient technology to maximize the energy generated from the available area. For now, this means always choosing crystalline silicon as it’s efficiency is significantly above any thin film solar panel out there.

Keep an eye out for breakthroughs in solar technology as some are surely bound to occur, but beating high quality crystalline silicon solar panels made in China for cost, efficiency and reliability is not easy.

‘Where should we put solar panels anyway?’ This is a question I’m often asked and to which I always reply, ‘everywhere!’ Glibness aside, what the question is usually getting at is to do with market segmentation. There are many different types of photovoltaic (PV) installations. One of the remarkable aspects of solar technology is just how scalable it is. Solar panels are used in both pocket calculators and in giant solar farms covering hundreds of hectares. The economics of each application are very different however and it is important too understand which applications represent the largest markets.

As I’ll discuss the, UK feed in tariff is designed to strongly influence the type of solar installations built in the UK, but what kind of solar installations are best and what should we expect in the UK?

Let’s look at what’s going on in other countries around the world. In Germany, the world’s biggest solar market by far this year, grid-connected solar systems are defined in three categories; residential, commercial and utility scale. Residential scale is the smallest type of installation and refers to all installations less than 10kW (~60m2) typically found on private houses. Commercial scale refers to installations between 10kW and 100kW (600m2) typically found on the roof of a factory, office or warehouse. Utility scale refers to all installations above 100kW and these are typically ground-based installations on fields (also known as solar farms) and can cover hundreds of hectares.

These three types of installation are quite different from each other in terms of price and the technology used. Which type of installations are the most popular? Figures published by the Bundesnetzagentur (the German grid regulator) state that the market in 2009 is divided into 17% in the residential scale, 17% in utility scale and 66% in commercial scale. This means that because residential installations are smaller, there are many more of them in number than utility scale installations.

Large plants are cheaper due to economies of scale, however the planning process can be long and complex, and it can be difficult to find banks willing to loan money for such projects. Rooftop plants on the other hand have a much easier time getting planning permission, and often are fully funded by the owner, so don’t require a loan. This explains why commercial scale rooftop plants dominate the market.

In the US, rooftop installations also dominate, and there is an additional reason why. In the US there is no feed-in-tariff, rather a complex array of grants that vary from state to state (California has the best).

Solar installations generate money by selling electricity to the energy utility at the regular unsubsidized rate. This means if you generate energy at the place where you use it, you get the same price of electricity that you would have to buy it at, the retail price. On the other hand, if you have a utility scale power plant, this requires the utility to distribute the energy for you and you only get the price that other types of power stations get, the wholesale price. Since wholesale electricity prices are roughly half that of retail electricity prices, its much better to have a solar installation in the same place as where you use it, i.e. on your roof.

So what does this mean for the UK? Well, as we are led to believe from the governments initial announcement, the UK feed-in-tariff will be strongly weighted towards smaller installations. This means that the larger your installation the less you will be paid for the electricity it generates. This cutoff is quite severe, with the rate dropping from 36p to 31p per kWh for installations over 4kW, to 28p for installations over 10kW and down to 26p for installations bigger than 100kW.

The argument behind this is so that all installation deliver an equal return on investment. This implies that the government assumes the cost of energy from a solar installation is 14% lower for a 5kW installation than for a 4kW installation.

Where does this assumption come from? Data from Germany suggests that this is not the case and the 14% drop does not exist. Cost of energy does fall with increasing scale but by how much is unclear and changes constantly with prices of various technologies.

I can understand if the government wants to ban solar farms (although having visited several under construction in Germany last month I think it’s a real shame that we don’t have a single solar farm in the UK, even just from an educational standpoint) but the current FiT structure does something else. It restricts the most effective type of photovoltaic installation, namely commercial scale rooftops.

Germany’s flat feed-in-tariff structure and the US’ grant scheme both allow the market to evolve naturally. If large rooftop installations make the most sense economically then why not let this segment grow fastest? Trying to engineer a feed-in-tariff so that everything grows at the same speed will inevitably slow growth overall.

Let’s hope changes are made while there’s still a chance.

Consultants Ernst & Young have released their annual global renewable energy country attractiveness indices with the big news being that China has knocked Germany from its number one spot, a position which they have enjoyed for the last seven years. The report indicated that in the lead of attractiveness are the US and China followed by Germany, India and Spain.

With various leading economies around the globe vying to become leaders in the renewable energy sector the Ernst & Young indices provides a tangible demonstration of how attractive the competing markets are to investors based on the measures taken by the respective governments. The commitments by the Chinese government to slow climate change through the reduction of carbon emissions has certainly been reflected in their rise in the investment indices.

Once the pariah of the international community with regards to fighting climate change, the Beijing government has demonstrated through legislation that they have a very earnest desire to slow the effects of climate change.

Recently the Chinese government announced 1.8 GW of solar installation throughout the vast country with investment incentivisation coming in the form of the Golden Sun subsidy scheme designed to transform the Chinese solar market from a purely manufacturing base into a world leader in solar PV installation. This, the report indicated was the key feature in China moving up the table from sixth place in 2007 to the joint number one position enjoyed today.

The report will come as an early Christmas present for the nations perched in the top 5 positions as it gives investors a comprehensive assessment of the most viable markets in which to invest based on criteria such as existing infrastructure, incentives and location benefits.

With the success of China as a potential solar PV market, analysts in the UK will not have missed the direct correllation between government action and market attractiveness, something which the report explicitly highlighted. The UK enjoyed limited success, moving up one point to sixth, an increase based on limited government action taken so far in the form of the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the introduction of the Energy Act in November 2008 and the recent announcement of the Clean Energy Cash Back system, essentially a feed-in tariff to be introduced in April 2010.

The UK’s position of sixth could be bettered by the next indices published by Ernst & Young at the end of 2010 but will depend greatly on the initial successes of the UK market in the light of the newly implemented tariff system. At the present moment members of the lobby group We Support Solar are arguing that the UK government will have to increase the tariff rate if the UK is to compete with the emerging solar tiger economies with manufacturing bases much closer to home.

For more information on the Ernst & Young global renewable energy country attractiveness indices, please visit:$file/Industry_Utilities_Renewable_energy_country_attractiveness_indices.pdf