Monthly archives: March 2010

With the general election just weeks away, the Conservative party under David Cameron has reiterated its support for green energy and has produced a paper outlining its proposals for a shake up of energy production in the UK. The green paper titled ‘Rebuilding Security’ announces a number of measures designed to help capitalise new and expensive green technologies.

In a budget statement undoubtedly designed to garner support from renewable industry insiders and environmental groups alike, the Conservative party leader is leading a project which will see the creation of a green investment bank with around £2 billion to invest in new, green technologies and help to grow the fledgling industry in the face of tightened lending from the traditional banking sector.

With investment essential to help the UK carbon neutral economy take off, the Conservative’s announcement has been met with encouraging assent from those it is meant to appeal to.

Director general of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Tom Foulkes welcomed the news as being key to the success of the UK green sector,

“Clearly, transforming the energy sector will require massive investment in new and upgraded infrastructure. A Green Investment Bank will go a long way towards funding the development of new technologies, but there remains a need for a secure method of funding for the long-term investment in energy infrastructure.”

Certainly, with the election expected in May green issues are expected to feature heavily with issues such as the the Clean Energy Cash Back scheme and the Copenhagen summit making headlines in recent months. Some of the key lobbies to appease ahead of the May ballot will of course be the environmental groups who this time are behind the green paper’s plans for the green energy overhaul.

Andy Atkins, Director of Friends of the Earth commented that,

“A Green Investment Bank is desperately needed to fund the replacement of the UK’s outdated fossil-fuel energy infrastructure with the clean energy technologies of the 21st century, and to create new green industries and jobs.”

With the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) bringing in the feed-in tariff on April 1, the ante has certainly been ‘upped’ with regards to real policy designed at tackling climate change and achieving targets on carbon emission reduction. With the Gordon Brown Labour government making positive moves towards a sustainable energy economy, the opposition will have their work cut out in order to show that they are also capable (and indeed willing) to see the development of a strong green technology industry in the UK. will regularly update all news regarding the feed-in tariff before the election so please visit us again to stay up to date with all green issues.

The long discussed changes to the German feed-in tariff are still in debate after a report released Monday by Germany’s regional government assembly called for a relaxation of the planned cuts. This means that the changes, which were originally planned to come into effect in April and have already been pushed back until June, may be yet again delayed. The bill we continue to pass its way through the German parliament over the next two months.

Whilst everyone appears to be in agreement that the feed-in tariff should be lowered faster than originally planned in light of dramatic price reductions in PV systems, there is controversy over much it should be lowered and how the structure of the tariff should be changed. There is a big debate for instance, concerning the level of a ‘self-consumption’ bonus, whereby producers of solar energy are rewarded for any electricity they use themselves rather than export to the grid. Also in discussion is the difference in feed-in tariff paid to ground mounted solar farms compared to rooftop installations.

Meanwhile, solar installers are experiencing a continuation of strong demand. At the end of 2009, the rate of new installations reached an all-time high with around 2GW installed in the fourth quarter alone as customers rushed to install before the 2009/2010 feed-in tariff drop. The threat of new cuts in the feed-in tariff are only increasing the incentive to install in 2010.

An interesting pattern is emerging, whereby the PV market experiences surges in the run-up to a feed-in tariff change. This cyclical pattern creates extra incentive for the government to decrease the feed-in tariff and looking at the market it seems that prices are set to fall further over the next year or so. These factors may well push us into the realm of parity with retail electricity prices in Germany by 2013.

In the UK, the feed-in tariff is unlikely to be altered before 2012, although we will carefully scrutinize the aftermath of the forthcoming general election. Already commentators in the UK are speculating that the UK may experience its own mini ‘PV-rush’ in the run up to 2012. However, as Germany has repeatedly shown, one ‘PV rush’ can lead to another.

Several of the thin film PV manufacturers (see previous article) have announced ambitious plans to start selling their products in large volumes. In particular, NanoSolar, Solibro, Solar Frontier and MiaSole are makers of the new “CIGS” type of modules that promise to achieve high efficiency and lower cost than the thin film modules currently available. It will take time for these new technologies to be accepted for their reliability, but it is likely that at least some of the companies offering these products will succeed. News has been announced that a solar park using Nanosolar’s modules is already under construction.

Several of the developers of large PV projects in Germany, such as Phoenix Solar and Gehrlicher, are currently testing new technologies whilst at the same time being cautious about their forecasts for the German market. Phoenix Solar recently announced that it cannot provide details of its development strategy until the details of the German feed-in tariff have been finalized.

These developments should act to further decrease the price of PV.

The much debated, tweeted, blogged and indeed refreshing government legislation, the feed-in tariff, which is to become reality on April 1 could transform micro-generation from cottage industry to nationwide norm within the next few years according to Steven Harris. Harris, as head of low carbon technologies at the Energy Savings Trust (EST) believes that with the tariff legislation in place, the UK will be in good shape to see a large scale uptake of renewable technologies, something which he believes only a few years ago would have been incomprehensible.

“The poor old cottage industry of renewable energy will not know what’s hit it. People could be forgiven for waiting to install these technologies up until this point, but once the tariff comes in, things could change rapidly,” states Harris who certainly knows how difficult it has been to bring about a change in attitudes towards the viabilty and importance of green technologies.

Harris who along with his colleague Bill Dunstar created the BedZed village project featuring carbon neutral housing in the Surrey commuter town of Wallington ten years ago can easily recall the derision which green ideas were met with at the time. The project which was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2003 highlighted the potential feasibility of sustainable materials and carbon neutral building at a time when such ideas were far from the mainstream. Harris recalls,

“It’s amazing when you sit in meetings now; people are saying exactly the same stuff that was laughed at when we were starting BedZed. Back then, things such as using reclaimed materials, sustainability assessments, local sourcing, having an ecological footprint… they were just not on the construction agenda, let alone the housing agenda.”

With the introduction of the feed-in tariff at the beginning of next month the situation has changed dramatically for micro-generation projects such as BedZed pioneered by Harris and Dunstar. The tariff will offer small-scale generators of green energy guaranteed, premium rates for energy fed-back in to the national grid and will thereby seek to offset the obvious costs involved in installing renewable technologies. With annual returns of £500 expected for households with solar PV installed, the industry is hopeful that the solar industry has the potential to take off with the backing of the tariff.

Steven Harris certainly believes that solar micro-generation could become widespread with the tariff mechanism incentivising investment and see the BedZed project become reality within the next decade.

“Solar technology has really moved forward. In China, it’s illegal not to put thermal solar on your roof, but they have the advantage of a totalitarian state. The fact that they have to manufacture panels for billions of people has really driven down the cost of solar. I know when we first started BedZed, the payback on a panel was around 75 years; now it’s about 12.”

Unfortunately it is necessary for me to respond to a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian criticising the UK feed in tariff. Since the article misses key points that would have influenced the conclusions made, I take this opportunity address the author’s primary arguments.

The purpose of a feed-in-tariff is to encourage investment and grow the micro-generation industry. Economies of scale and technology improvements then lead to cost-reductions, meaning that the subsidies can be reduced and eventually removed. This is exactly what is happening in Germany and many other European countries. In Germany, whilst there is some debate over how much the feed-in-tariff should be reduced, the solar industry agrees that it should be decreased faster than was originally planned due to the recent dramatic falls in PV system prices. The tariff reductions are a testament to the policy’s success, not its failure, and no-one believes it should not have been introduced in the first place.

Monbiot failed to mention that Germany’s solar industry currently employs over 60,000 people, turns over €10bn a year and generates significant tax revenues. The industry is expected to grow even with significant feed in tariff reductions and southern Germany currently produces close to 5% of its total electricity demand (the amount of solar energy in Germany has grown by almost a factor of 10 since 2006). The cost of the feed in tariff to energy consumers is just a few Euros per year per household.

Many other countries have followed Germany’s success in recent years such that the UK is the last remaining major European economy without a feed-in-tariff. Consequently, the cost of PV in the UK is still extremely high in comparison with our neighbours. Experience from Europe has shown that the downward cost trajectory for PV is very steep once the industry begins to grow, and cost competitiveness with conventional energy prices is predicted to be achieved across much of Europe in the next two years. This is why the UK needs to be aggressive with its feed-in-tariff – so it can catch up and reduce the subsidy sooner.

Monbiot astonishingly unqualifies his comparison of large-scale energy generation with micro-generation. The consumer price of electricity costs upto four times as much as the wholesale price of electricity. Therefore micro-generation, which is produced at the point of consumption, has a much easier cost target than large-scale generation to be economically competitive. Micro-generation is much closer to being economically viable than Monbiot makes to believe.

Furthermore, no-one is saying that micro-generation should replace large-scale wind, it is a valuable addition. Nor is anyone saying we should prioritise micro-generation over energy efficiency measures such as insulation. Obviously its cheaper to save CO2 by improve improving inefficiencies than to install clean energy generation, but if we are to eliminate the majority of our carbon emissions, both efficiency and clean generation are required. Insulation will be fitted wherever possible in UK buildings, why wait until this process has finished before dealing with renewables?

Monbiot also argues that PV only makes sense in southern California. The average insolation (sunniness level) is around 1.9 times higher in Southern California than in the UK. This means that yes, you have more sun in California than here, but not by an order of magnitude. The amount of sunlight that hits buildings in the UK is still 6 times the amount of energy used within those buildings and Germany’s irradiation level is very similar to ours.

I imagine that Monbiot was joking about the possibility of people fraudulently claiming the feed-in-tariff but it is worth noting that such a fraud would not be possible given the checks that are in place and since it has not been seen in any other country with a feed in tariff, why should it be seen in the UK?

In summary, Monbiot does not seem to understand what has been happening in Europe during the last few years. The feed-in-tariff has been shown to be one of the few successful mechanisms for boosting renewable energy generation and fighting climate change. I hope that his misunderstanding does not serve to hold the UK back any further than we already are.